Few parents would dream of embarking on a trip with an infant or young toddler riding unrestrained in the car. It's illegal, for one thing, but the biggest motivation is parents' overwhelming concern for the safety of a child for whom they would walk through fire.
We're conditioned and educated to demand a safety precaution that barely existed half a century ago, yet has sharply decreased the number of deaths among children in car crashes.
Compare that to commercial airline flights.
Parents can and often do travel with children under age 2 sitting on adults' laps, making those youngest passengers the only things bigger than a magazine that aren't stowed or restrained on takeoffs and landings or during heavy turbulence.
No rule says infants have to be restrained, so parents are left with the impression it's just as safe if they're not.
In 1989, ill-fated United Flight 232 showed that isn't the case, and so have other accidents since then. Parents' arms can't match their strong intentions to hug a child close when there's sudden turbulence or impact, research shows. Unrestrained, babies become projectiles dangerous to themselves and to all on board.
In the crash of Chicago-bound Flight 232 in Sioux City, Iowa, which killed 112 of 296 people on board, at least three of four lap-held infants were pulled from parents' hands, and one died even though his mother was uninjured. Another woman described in a federal report that she managed to grab her baby by the waist as he was flung away from her by the impact, but he struck his head and suffered a head wound.
The Federal Aviation Administration acknowledges "the safest place for your child on an airplane is in a government-approved child safety restraint system or device, not on your lap."
So what's the rub? Money, for one. Parents who want a guaranteed seat for their young child have to pay for one. And the FAA's position since 2005 has been that families that have to buy another airline ticket might drive, statistically much riskier for the baby and family members.
Meanwhile, there's confusion -- from parents who aren't aware of the safety warnings, from flight personnel about what child restraints can be brought on board and from all quarters about the best options for children of any age (are lap belts sufficient for 2½-year-olds, for instance?)
Very few kids (or adults) die in plane crashes, but that's no reason to delay in creating up-to-date standards. Airlines, meeting as the International Air Transport Association, focused on infant safety in a conference this year. They and regulators need to take a close look at the safety of young children on commercial flights and put consistent rules in place. Until then, parents need to realize the FAA acknowledges its rules fall short of what's safest for young fliers.