What’s the Deal with “Baby on Board” Signs?


Last month, the 30th anniversary for those ubiquitous “Baby on Board” signs came and went. Truthfully, I didn’t give the occasion much thought. And then a few lines in a recent article gave me pause.

In the article on Quartz.com, which argues that parenting has become an all-encompassing religion, “Baby on Board” signs are held up as a key example of how our culture values the lives of infants above all others.

Nobody would have placed such a sign on a car if it were not already understood by society that the life of a human achieves its peak value at birth and declines thereafter. A toddler is almost as precious as a baby, but a teenager less so, and by the time that baby turns fifty, it seems that nobody cares much anymore if someone crashes into her car. You don’t see a lot of vehicles with placards that read, “Middle-aged accountant on board.”

The accountant joke aside, there’s a serious point to be made here. While babies are more vulnerable to injury, shouldn’t we be driving carefully no matter who is on the neighboring car?

I posed the question to moms in a Facebook group I belong to and some of their responses surprised me. Safety 1st, the brand behind “Baby on Board,” says their customers — parents — feel the signs “are alerting others to be safe on the road, which in turn might help keep their little ones safe too.” But a couple of moms I heard from say they use the sign for the sake of other peoples’ safety. They admitted that driving with their babies meant they were more likely to pull over, drive more slowly, or do other things that would annoy fellow motorists.

“I have one and I use it less as a ‘be careful driving around me’ sign and more of an ‘I’m sorry if I take forever to take that right turn on red/I’m sorry if I drive the speed limit/I’m sorry if I look like an idiot driving sometimes’ sign,” one mom said.

Another confirmed that “Baby on Board” signs on other cars do, in fact, make her more mindful … of new parents driving.

“When I see those signs though my first thought is usually “that’s a tired, distracted driver. I’d better watch out for them!” she said.

(Other reasons parents use “Baby on Board” signs, they told me, is that they hope drivers will give them more space in parking lots and in case of emergencies, so rescue workers will know an infant is in the car.)

In theory, it’s not just parents and babies who benefit from the signs — it’s anyone who wants to steer clear of sleep-deprived moms and dads who may pull over at any minute to stick a binkie in Junior’s blubbering mouth. Middle-aged accountants, rejoice! The world DOES care about you.

Except … here’s the thing: Drivers have to notice and react to the signs for them to have any impact, and whether that’s happening on a large scale remains unclear. As reported recently by USA Today, Safety 1st and parent company Dorel Industries hasn’t conducted tests to see how drivers react to “Baby on Board” signs.

Some are skeptical that they have any effect at all.

“I don’t think that the signs in cars make any difference to other drivers,” Steve Dziadik, the owner of a Florida driving school, told me in an email. “I have found that ‘STUDENT DRIVER’ in big red letters on the back of our school cars doesn’t keep people from scaring my students with unnecessary honking so I doubt that little yellow signs in the side windows of a car are going to make any difference either.”

For its part, Safety 1st says the fact that their signs are just as popular today as they were 30 years means the message “stands the test of time.” And plenty of parents do believe that reminding people that a baby is in a neighboring car will encourage motorists to drive with more caution.

The “parents with signs hope it jars [drivers] enough to be careful … because babies are a bit more delicate,” one mom told me.

There may be some science to this, and it has less to do with the conscious valuing of babies over adults than it does with biology. A 2008 study out of Oxford University found that adults had activity in a certain region of the brain when viewing pictures of baby faces but not when viewing pictures of other adults.

In other words, when we see infants — even if they’re not our own children — we may be hard-wired to react differently than when we see adults.

I doubt that a little yellow sign would produce the same brain activity as an adorable baby face, but it might still be better than nothing. Skepticism notwithstanding, I guess I’m on board.


Image courtesy of ThinkStock

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