The Constitutionality and Effectiveness of Legislation Requiring Child Passenger Restraints

Report No: 82-R34

Published in 1982

About the report:

This report was prepared in anticipation of the Virginia General Assembly's consideration of proposals to require motorists to properly restrain their child passengers in safety devices. Three questions are discussed. First, are child restraint laws constitutional? Second, are the laws cost-effective? Third, which specific provisions tend to decrease costs and increase benefits ? Three theories which have been advanced to argue that law on the use of child restraints are constitutional were considered. Two of these are seriously flawed, but the third rests on precedents that have acknowledged the state's power to protect those incapable of protecting themselves. This third argument, paternalism, should be sufficient to find child restraint laws constitutional. The cost-effectiveness of child restraint legislation cannot be established empirically. The inadequacy of the literature can largely be traced to the immeasurability of the costs and benefits, and the lack of sufficient time to study the existing statutes. The two major costs imposed by child restraint legislation, enforcement costs and compliance costs, are easy to identify but hard to measure. The benefits of child restraint legislation, increased safety through increased use, are difficult to determine because it is unclear how many people will ignore the law or comply in ways that degrade the safety benefit. Moreover, any judgment on the cost-effectiveness of child restraint legislation inevitably hinges on a highly subjective evaluation of childhood death and injury. These difficulties are compounded by the fact that nine of the eleven existing laws were passed within the last year, leaving no time for careful analysis. Although absolute measures of the costs and benefits of legislation on the use of child restraints are unavailable, some states have sought to enhance their statutes' marginal effectiveness by adding provisions that decrease costs or increase benefits. These provisions were analyzed with particular attention to the role of statutory exemptions in reducing costs and the impact of public education and monetary incentives in increasing the use of restraints. Again, there was a lack of empirical evidence, and these provisions had to be analyzed inferentially and intuitively. In discussing the fate of child restraint legislation in Virginia, frequent reference is made to the eleven states that have passed child restraint statutes. The text of those statutes and a comparison of their various provisions appear in Appendix A.

Disclaimer Statement:The contents of this report reflect the views of the author(s), who is responsible for the facts and the accuracy of the data presented herein. The contents do not necessarily reflect the official views or policies of the Virginia Department of Transportation, the Commonwealth Transportation Board, or the Federal Highway Administration. This report does not constitute a standard, specification, or regulation. Any inclusion of manufacturer names, trade names, or trademarks is for identification purposes only and is not to be considered an endorsement.

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Daniel John Regan

Last updated: January 20, 2024

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