We piled into the minivan (or “mini”, as we affectionately call it, dreaming it’s actually a mini Cooper). I couldn’t tell my Burmese friend no. No, I can’t take you to the hospital because your daughter is too large for that infant carseat and I can’t install it properly. When I showed up at their home, she asked if I could take her and her daughter directly to the hospital to take lunch to her son, who had been hit by a car and suffered a blow to the head, blood loss and severe damage to his legs. He almost lost his left leg. Of course I’ll take you to the hospital, appalled at what she had just conveyed to me. The accident happened a month prior and she and her daughter took homemade, hot food to the hospital every day. Her husband stayed with their son in his hospital room. They were at the mercy of friends with cars to take them – every day.
So, when she produced an infant carseat out of a back closet, I couldn’t think of a quick Plan B. My daughters were with me and needed their carseats for the ride. The little Burmese two-year-old was a good six inches too long to sit in the infant seat in the rear-facing position, despite her small frame. Her mother didn’t know how to properly install the seat, though I have plenty of experience with carseats. But this one wasn’t going to fit the “right” way. I strapped in the daughter, placed the seat facing forward, sitting nearly upright, like a toddler carseat. I tightened the belt around the carseat and across the toddler’s waist. This will have to do. I am fully aware of and completely support California’s carseat laws. High fines are imposed on those who do not abide by them. Drivers can be fined over $300 for improperly securing a child in a car seat. If a child is not constrained at all, the driver’s license can be revoked. I know this.
I am well-aware of these laws not because I was pulled over by a cop, but because a couple months ago I accompanied a Congolese refugee to the county offices to attend carseat training, after which the attendees were provided with a new, free car seat for each child in the family. Children need to be in carseats. But carseats are expensive. Unless you can afford to buy one new or are one of the few families who has access to a program like California’s for low-income families, a safe carseat might seem to be a luxury. The cheapest carseat on the market costs more than the huge bag of rice the refugee family buys, which lasts them a month of meals. At the refugee center where I volunteered, people donated used carseats for new refugee families. I asked the coordinator if the carseats were less than seven years old and if they’d been checked for damage. Seven years is about the lifespan of a carseat, given the plastic can deteriorate sitting in the heat of the car and safety standards over that time might have changed. She looked at me and shrugged. I don’t know. What choice do we have? No one is donating the hundreds of dollars a month that would be needed to supply the new prospective American citizens with new carseats for their children.
Except for the most developed countries of the world, to my knowledge there are limited carseat laws across the globe. Billions of people can’t afford cars, much less carseats. Carseats are luxuries. In many countries, a child in a carseat is an anomaly. Rich people can put their babies in carseats, but the average person has no such option. Babies and toddlers sit on a parent’s lap or jump around in the back seat, like the “old days.” It is tragic. It’s tragic in the same way clean water is a luxury. It’s tragic in the same way having an ambulance arrive after dialing 9-1-1 is a luxury. That’s how the little Burmese boy was taken to the hospital after the car hit him in the street in front of their tiny apartment. And I, having the luxury of a car, had the opportunity to take the family to visit their 8-year-old son, his leg in traction. And I will buy them a gift, the first large gift (aside from baked goods and fruit from my garden) that I’ve given them in the year or more that I’ve known them – a carseat for their sweet daughter, so she can experience the luxury of safety in her new country.