'Baby on Board' Signs Kick Up a Fuss : Criticized by Safety Officials, They Also Inspire Sardonic Parodies by Offended Motorists

Times Staff Writer

Not since the religious bumper sticker "I FOUND IT!" inspired numerous responses ("I AM IT!," "I ATE IT!") has there been such a lively debate bouncing around on the exteriors of automobiles.

The primary objet d'argument this time is the yellow, diamond-shaped sign, "BABY ON BOARD!," which is showing up in the back windows of more and more local cars, along with a few variations ("CHILD IN CAR!").

The placards sell for about $2.50 apiece and are the brainkids of a Massachusetts company called Safety First, which says Southern California is one of its biggest markets.

"We're out of them (the signs)," said a saleswoman in a Toys R Us store in Culver City the other day. "They sell so fast we can't even keep them in stock."

However, the signs, which first began to appear late last year, have also drawn criticism from the Los Angeles Area Child Passenger Safety Assn., from some law enforcement authorities and from motorists who detect an implication that they don't normally drive safely.

And they have given rise to parodies, some homemade, some sold in pet or novelty stores, including "BABY DRIVING!," "BEAGLE ON BOARD!," and "NOBODY ON BOARD!"

"I get a little tired of seeing all those 'BABY ON BOARD!' signs in Volvos and other Yuppie-type cars," said writer Paul Zwart of Rosemead. "What am I supposed to do, bow to Allah because someone else has a kid?"

Zwart, himself, displays a "BABY CARRIES NO CASH!" sign in his car, with "CHILD APPEARS CLOSER THAN IT SEEMS!" in reserve.

Other drivers defend the original signs as not being demands for special consideration but rather warnings that a harried and distracted mother (or father) is behind the wheel.

Then there's the 32-year-old school administrator who is still known as "Baby" to his mother and two older brothers. When asked about the "BABY ON BOARD!" sign his family bought for him, he responds: "It's me!"

"We get a lot of calls from people wondering how they can get one," said Stephanie Tombrello, executive director of the Inglewood-based Child Passenger Safety Assn.

"And we get a lot of calls from people who are just livid over them. The thing that fascinates me is how they can cause so much discussion pro and con. I guess it just shows how much we live in our cars."

Michael Lerner, owner of Safety First, a child-oriented sign and decal manufacturer, says the "BABY ON BOARD!" signs serve a useful function because "people in this day and age are very anxious to get from one place to another, and for every person that drives safely, there are 10 or 20 that need to be reminded to be careful." (Lerner declined to say how many signs his company has sold.)

The nonprofit, grass-roots Child Passenger Safety Assn., which helped bring about the state law making child safety seats mandatory, wrote to Safety First to complain about two omissions in the signs' instructions.

First, there was no mention of laws regulating their placement on automobile windows. In California, such placards are legal only in the lower portion of the rear window.

"I've seen the signs stuck in the middle of the back window, where they might prevent you from seeing a kid walking behind the car," Tombrello said. "You have to protect everyone's kid, not just your own."

In addition, the signs' packaging makes no mention of the importance of safety seats for small children.

"Some people who display the signs are very committed to the safety of their kids," she said. "But others let their kids run around inside while they're driving and seem to figure the signs will protect them.

"We're not for or against the signs, but the most important way to protect kids in cars is not to post a sign but to make sure they're in safety seats or buckled up," added Tombrello, a mother of four whose car bears the bumper sticker, "LOVE YOUR KIDS--BUCKLE THEM UP."

May Revise Packaging

Safety First says it plans to take note of the omissions in future packaging of the signs.

Another point of contention surrounding the "BABY ON BOARD!" pronouncements is their frequent display in cars whose only occupant is the non-child at the steering wheel.

Lerner of Safety First said the signs come with suction cups and should be removed when no child is present. But he admitted that "some people who are just making a quick run down the street leave them on. That's their personal preference."

Lt. Michael Post, traffic bureau commander of the Glendale Police Department, said such casual use of the signs could cause problems in some traffic accidents.

"If a vehicle were engulfed in flames I'd hate to have a firefighter or police officer going into the car because he sees the sign and believes a child is trapped inside," Post said. "Anyway, the public isn't going to alter its driving habits because of a sign. I think that's why we see so many sarcastic takeoffs, like 'CHILD IN TRUNK,' which I saw the other day."

'No Kid Inside'

"Almost every time I see a car with one of those signs, there's no kid inside," said Lt. Dan Cooke, a spokesman for the Los Angeles Police Department. "Maybe some people have them because they think we'd be less likely to give them a ticket."

Lerner of Safety First stands by the signs. "The public needs to be made aware of the problem of careless driving," he said.

His company also markets another child-oriented product, a "BABY SLEEPING!" placard that can be hung on the outside of a house--or, conceivably, an automobile.

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