Children and cars

Anna Quindlen

January 08, 1991|By Anna Quindlen

IT IS easy to predict what most parents will say when asked what the worst that could happen to them might be. It is the death of a child.

But perhaps sometimes there is something worse than that. It is having a child die, and being somehow responsible for that death.

That is what has happened to Ramiro DeJesus Rodriguez, who went on a trip to the supermarket that destroyed his family's life.

His 3-year-old daughter was in the car, sitting on her mother's lap. When the crash came she hit the --board. Veronica Rodriguez was buried in Nicaragua, where she was born. Her father has been charged with vehicular homicide, operating his car "in a reckless manner likely to cause the death of another person."

If he goes on trial in Florida this month as scheduled, it will be the first prosecution of a parent for failing to use a seat belt for a child who died in an accident.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that if all of us used car seats correctly for our kids, we could prevent 56,000 injuries each year. Veronica Rodriguez would be alive today if she had been riding in hers.

But we've always had a hankering for laws that are easy to pass but unpopular to enforce.

People agree that littering is loathsome until the day they are cited for public untidiness. The man who grumbled about picking his way through the snow of a sidewalk that hasn't been shoveled will be irate when a public-works employee shows up to cite him for not clearing his own.

Every state now requires small children to ride in child-restraint seats. In some hospitals, the nurses who carry newborns to the curb are instructed to give parents a lesson on car-seat use, and in many areas poor families can get a seat on loan.

This is called the education component, and it is friendly and helpful.

Enforcement is unfriendly and punitive. It is hard, and it is not happening.

Rodriguez is enforcement. And if enforcement has become embodied in a man charged with killing his own child, we have missed some steps along the way.

In New York state in 1989, there were more than half a million speeding convictions, and just more than 5,000 convictions for not using child restraint devices. That means a motorist was 100 times more likely to be convicted of exceeding the speed limit than of failing to keep a child safe in the car. This doesn't come as much of a surprise to me.

I've watched police officers ticket double-parkers while a car zooms past them, a baby perched on the lap of the person in the passenger seat, a human air bag waiting to make contact with the windshield.

If I had seen Rodriguez and his wife, doing what people do every day -- the child was sick; it was just a short ride -- I probably would have done what I always do.

I would have wondered whether they had lost their minds. I would have wondered if a cop was going to pull them over and give them a ticket. And I would have imagined that the chances of that were slight.

Last year a similar prosecution was attempted in California, but it was dropped amid a public outcry. "Suffered enough" was the refrain.

In Rodriguez's case, his supporters have suggested that he is being made an example because he is poor and Hispanic, powerless and non-white. Certainly this prosecution is designed to do in a dramatic and relatively easy way -- easy for everyone but Rodriguez, that is -- what police and judges should have been doing the hard way all along.

We know the drill. High fines. Highway signs warning of them. Constant enforcement.

People don't drive much over the speed limit because they know there's considerable risk of getting an expensive ticket and a black mark on their license that can cost them in insurance premiums, even cause them to lose their driving privileges. If they thought the same was likely to happen if they didn't put their child in a car seat, there'd be a lot more compliance.

The time and place to teach Veronica Rodriguez's father a lesson was on the road, with his daughter suspended between her mother's lap and death. Now he has nothing left to learn, and little left to lose. If he had it to do over again, we all know what he'd do.

He'd do what law enforcement should be making sure we do every day, whether we like it or not.

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