The Baby Walker March to Safety
Gary Smith is a well-known pediatric emergency medicine doctor, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Columbus Children's Hospital in Ohio. He is also chairman of the Committee on Injury, Violence, and Poison Prevention of the American Academy of Pediatrics. So, when he talks, a lot of people listen.
Today, he's talking, as his Center issues a study showing a dramatic reduction in injuries from baby walkers. In 1990, there were about 21,000 injuries a year from baby walkers; in 2001, there were about 5,100 -- a 76 percent drop. The number has dropped even more since then to about 4,000 a year.
Smith calls the baby walker "a poster child" success story for injury prevention, a lesson that he would like to see applied to other products, such as shopping carts and playgrounds: Redesign them or create new and safer versions so parents don't have to maintain 24/7 vigilence or hastily intervene to prevent an accident. That's what happened with baby walkers, Smith says.
In the early '90s, as pediatricians urged parents to stop using walkers because of injuries (most were falls down stairs), a new product appeared: a stationary activity center that bounced, rocked and spun. Then in 1997, the industry came out with a new voluntary standard for the walkers; they had to be built so they wouldn't fall down stairs (they either had to be wider than the typical 36-inch-door or have a braking system to prevent the walker from tumbling down the stairs). Parents no longer had to chase after a child who could move at 4 feet a second with the walker, Smith said.
It's the kind of success he says you see with vaccines. But he notes, when a vaccine is successful, doctors don't stop giving it; they try to eradicate the disease entirely, like current efforts with polio. "You have to keep pressing for safer alternatives," Smith says. That's why, in spite of the dramatic drop in injuries, Smith is still calling for a ban on baby walkers. Canada has such a ban.
The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission has not endorsed a ban. But it implemented a policy in December 2005 that effectively makes the voluntary standard mandatory. It told importers, manufacturers, distributors and retailers that any baby walker that failed to have the stair-fall protection would be considered "a substantial product hazard" and subject to a recall.
The agency said many of the remaining injuries could be prevented if all walkers complied with the current safety standard. So here's some good advice: Check any baby walker you buy or have around the house. If it doesn't have a braking system or is narrower than 36 inches, get rid of it. And don't just pass it on to someone else. Throw it away.
March 6, 2006; 11:00 AM ET
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