Parents Restrict Toy Guns, Why Not Restrict Toy Cars? #StreetsR4Families

If only all cars were as puffy and harmless as this one. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.
If only all cars were as puffy and harmless as this one. Photo: Joe Linton/Streetsblog L.A.

Many parents, including me and my mother, don’t let their kids play with toy guns. We believe that guns aren’t good for kids. They inure children to the danger inherent to guns.

But what about toy cars?

I write about transportation, so I am no expert on guns. From a little online research, here’s what I found. On an annual basis in the United States, cars have killed more people than guns. Since the 1960s, car deaths are trending downward. Gun deaths are trending upward. For the past half-decade, though, cars and guns each killed more than 30,000 people per year in the U.S.

U.S. Car deaths have historically been greater than gun deaths. Currently each accounts for roughly 30,000 deaths per year. Image via Bloomberg
U.S. Car deaths have historically been greater than gun deaths. Currently each accounts for roughly 30,000 deaths per year. Image via Bloomberg

But whether cars or guns kill more isn’t the question. It doesn’t matter which serial killer has the lower body count. Both kill.

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We restrict our kids from playing with guns. We allow our kids to cuddle with, read about, and watch cartoons about cars.

Car toys are ubiquitous. Cars are in movies, on television, in video games, and books. Kids play with toy cars, ride in toy cars, clutch stuffed toy cars as they fall asleep. My mom encouraged my siblings and me to play car-race video games as an alternative to shoot-em-up video games.

What messages are all these toy cars giving to our children? The messages are mixed. The movie Cars can be read as a parable against induced demand and the destruction that car-centric highway culture had on small town America.

But more often than not, cars are anthropomorphized and romanticized as friendly heroes. An example of this is Little Blue Truck, which opens:

Horn went “Beep!”
Engine purred.
Friendliest sounds
you ever heard.

On my Koreatown Los Angeles street the engines and horns can’t conceivably be friendly sounds. But somehow in kids’ books they are. (Before I court a Little Blue backlash – yes – the little beeping truck is beeping his hellos. The story contrasts this with the arrogant big truck who barrels through, so the book can be read as a lesson on not being an obnoxious driver. But even the little good driver truck being the hero rubs me the wrong way.)

In other books, for example Sheep in a Jeep, car crashes are harmless. “The driver sheep forgets to steer” and crashes head-on into a tree, and nobody is harmed. Even the generally subversive Dr. Seuss, in One Fish Two Fish Red Fish Blue Fish, concludes a rhyme with “I would never walk/I would take a car.” Our well-thumbed copy of this book has this line edited to read “I would like to walk/I don’t take a car.”

As a parent, car images and car toys are difficult to avoid. My nearly three-year-old daughter likes Sheep in a Jeep and Richard Scary’s beautiful but car-loving books.

She also likes CicLAvia, People St plazas, and more important than what we read, she sees me riding my bike, and we walk, ride bikes, buses, and trains together.

To some extent, these pro-car sentiments are teachable moments. I talk with my daughter when we read these books, often elaborating that cars are dangerous and that bikes are awesome. I seek out books with positive images of bicycling, walking, and riding on buses and trains. Even just kids’ books with positive healthy urban settings are rarer than you might expect, but they are out there. And there are plenty of mindless train stories and videos that I can’t quite warm up to. I’ll write more about books that I prefer (and ones that bug me) in a future #StreetsR4Families article soon.

What do you think, livability-minded parents? Do you avoid car toys the way you avoid gun toys?

  • I grew up playing with things like this extensively.

    I owned dozens of hot wheels.

    Ive never owned a car.

    “We restrict our kids from playing with guns.”

    Mostly because American police operate on a shoot-to-kill basis with anything remotely cylindrical involved. Not because anyone thinks having a toy gun will lead to a gangster life.

    I disagree that there is any link at all between the design of the toy and being pro-whatever.

  • We used to joke about Sammy and his love for all things Disney Cars when he was growing up. We counted on the life lessons that we taught through how we lived as counter-programming and focused on the personality of the Cars in Disney instead of the fact that they were actually Cars. Overall that worked ok. The irony is the lessons found in Cars (outside of the fact that they were cars) were way more progressive than the lessons found in Thomas the Tank Engine.

  • AlexWithAK

    This is a stretch even for me. The intended purpose of a gun is to inflict harm. A car’s intended purpose is transportation. Now of course cars consistently inflict a great deal of harm on many levels, but that’s because we’ve vastly overused and over-accommodated them. Cars are like any other tool that can be misused and for me, that’s the message to convey to my daughter. Not that we’ll be deliberately buying her toy cars, but we won’t be forbidding them, either.

  • davistrain

    One example of making kids motor-minded at an early age is car seats with steering wheels. I don’t think they’re made anymore, but they used to be common.

  • Stvr

    Should we let our kids play with toy planes? They pollute the earth. What about teddy bears? You know how many bears attack?

  • I have a one year old boy and I am sort of dismayed by the extent to which the cars and trucks thing is immediately impressed upon them. But not so for girls whatsoever. It’s like they are being groomed to enter the transportation industry from birth. It’s no wonder we have such big gender disparities in these fields.

  • Justin Runia

    LOL, no.

  • effron

    You’re reaching Joe.

  • RichardC

    Is the purpose of Streetsblog to preach ever-more-extremely to an anti-car choir? Or is it to convince average people that shifting how we devote our transportation resources (street space, money, etc) is the right choice?

    In order to reach average people, I doubt it’s helpful to be easily dismissed as a crazy and unreasonable fringe group that wants to take away kids’ toys.

  • mx

    Life is honestly too short for this kind of thing.

  • Joe Commuter

    I love you Joe, and think you strike the right note 95%+ of the time, but this is a bit of a reach. Kids (boys) grow up playing with toy cars in western Europe too. I do think cars are over emphasized and glorified among children’s toys and cartoons, and I think that needs to change. It’s kinda funny, the same cartoons that make cars look harmless typically have nice little main streets and kids walk to school, the park, etc.

  • Andy Chow

    I loved toy cars when I was a kid, and we all grew up just fine. I also played with BB guns as well, but now I have zero desire to own any real guns. There’s no need for the over political correctness, nor I see that being helpful. If you want your child to be exposed to transportation other than cars, take them to ride the bus or the train more often, and drive them less.

  • MultiKdizzle

    Because cars are specifically designed not to kill people, and guns … are. False equivalence.

    Let’s not use arguments that disrupt the progress of necessary gun reforms in this country. Thank you.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    The comparison is brought up frequently by the Pro Second Amendment side. Owning a firearm in the United States is a Right. However there is no compulsory education or training and many states do everything to prevent gun ownership

    Operating a motor vehicle is a privilege. However, for most people it is the deadliest machine that they will ever operate. There is training and testing, but it is dumbed down to the level that anybody can pass it (unlike Europe).

    First of all, 13,000 people were killed by firearms. Yes, it is a large number, but the 30,000 that is quoted contains suicides. How do you account for 17,000 suicides? Would these people have found another way to commit suicide or does gun ownership make it too easy for them?

    Since not many people commit suicide in a motor vehicle, let’s exclude suicides from the number. Now we are looking at 30,000+ motor vehicle fatalities vs 13,000 gun fatalities. Does that open your eyes on the dangers of operating a motor vehicle.

    I will admit to being more car-centric than the average Streetsblog reader (I believe we should achieve a balance between livable and motor vehicle use and do not believe cars are evil.). However, I also believe automobile licensing requirements are too low in United States. We should adopt European standards and if you do not pass, see you in six months. Enjoy riding your bike or the bus. When I operate a motor vehicle, I do so from the perspective of a pedestrian or cyclist. I want the peaceful co-existence of livable communities and motor vehicle use. That said, I feel that 30,000 deaths are 30,000 to many. If there is a shooting, it is, “Oh my G*d, another shooting. We need to take guns away from people.” When there is a fatal automobile crash, it is, “Ho-hum, another accident.”

    So what is worse? A right to bear arms with no compulsory training to safely execute that right that leads to 13,000 deaths? Or a privilege with minimal training that leads to 30, 000 deaths? In both cases, education is too low and the death rate is too high. False equivalence, maybe; food for thought, definitely.

  • Slexie

    Yes, it is absolutely been shown that having a gun in one’s home can increase the chances of someone using it to kill themselves. Yes, there are studies proving for some suicide is an impulsive act.

  • However, cars are being designed more and more to protect the people inside the vehicle and not those outside. The “improvements” allow drivers to go faster, crash with more margin for survivability thanks to airbags, drive distracted, and plenty other bad things that put peds at risk. So I would argue the case that are being designed to kill someone – just not anybody within the car.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    Let’s keep this from devolving into a Second Amendment debate. Yes, I tend to have right-leaning libertarian beliefs, that sometimes go counter to this forum. However, I do my best to debate it in an impartial, factual, and polite manner.

    I was trying to compare people killed by guns versus people killed by automobiles. I was trying to make a point about society’s lack of responsibility for both gun owners and motor vehicle operators; and that there is an equivalence.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    And as long as people are not properly educated on the power and responsibility of motor vehicle ownership and not properly punished for bad actions, then the only hope is autonomous vehicles. Make driving a car riding in a car. No speeding, no running red lights, no honking at pedestrians and cyclists. Yes, you can own a motor vehicle, but the computer is going to drive you. GPS says you will be home in 45 minutes, so live with it. Watch a movie, read a book, or interact on Facebook.

  • Kid Charles

    I for one defend your right to try to minimize your child’s exposure to car culture. Sure, it’s not like playing with toy cars guarantees a future car nut speed demon (I played with guns and acted out war scenarios as a kid, but as an adult I abhor militarism). That said, if cars are something that go against your value system, you should be able to teach that like any other beliefs you hold.

  • Slexie

    It’s not a second amendment debate. I don’t see how excluding deaths by suicide makes any difference in your assessment.

  • MultiKdizzle

    The gun deaths are worse. Nearly every American rides in a car everyday. Cars at present time are essential for participation in the modern economy for the vast majority of the population. Meanwhile most guns stay in a safe (or on someone’s desk) for weeks or months at a time, rarely used. Which means the each use case of the nation’s 253 million passenger vehicles is vastly less likely to result in a fatality than a gun.

    Car manufacturers, along with academia, have come together time and time again to improve industry standards, firstly mandating seat belts, then airbags, then electronic stability control, and, by 2022; autonomous emergency braking. These are the facts. Meanwhile ‘sporting rifles’ have only become more efficient at fulfilling their task, which is maiming or killing living organisms. When it came time to mandate trigger locks, require chamber-load indicators, standardize external safeties, the gun lobby stood in the way, every single time.

    Firearms are by far the most common and most lethal (85% ‘success rate’) method of suicide. More US suicides are committed with firearms than every other method, put together. In California, we’ve begun addressing that problem – we have a 10 day waiting period designed to address firearm suicides. The data indicates that the waiting period has worked. According to Harvard’s state indicators, California has the 9th lowest rate of firearm suicides in the country.

    For a more robust analysis, note that a study published in the National Institute of Health Journal (Pubmed) using information from handgun purchase applications found that the rate of firearm suicide in the first week after the purchase of a handgun was 57 times as high as the rate in the general population. As far as finding another method goes, consider; A 1977 study found that 94% of the 515 people who were stopped from leaping from the Golden Gate between 1937 and 1971 were still alive, an average of 26 years later. A study of people who made nearly fatal attempts found that a quarter had only thought about suicide for five minutes before trying it, and nearly 90% had deliberated for just eight hours or less. Again, these are the facts. Suicide is a deeply impulsive, spontaneous decision. So I am not going to exclude 17,000 mostly-preventable gun suicides just on a whim.

  • D G Spencer Ludgate

    All right, I’ll go down the rabbit hole…

    The Suicide rate in the United States is 12.5 per 100,000 (1985 to 2015 average). This equivalent to Germany, less than France (14.7 per 100,000), but greater than Britain and Canada (11.8 and 11.5 per 100,000 respectively).

    My assessment is that, yes 40% of suicides are from self-inflicted gun shot wounds. But the U.S. suicide rate is on par with our Western counterparts. If all the guns in the U.S. magically disappeared, the suicide rate is not going to drop to 7.5 per 100,000. At best it will put us inline with Canada at 11.5 per 100,000; a drop of 3,440 people out of 43,000+.

    My point is that suicides are a mental health issue. To have a true comparison, you need to compare people killed by guns (13,000) vs people killed by motor vehicles (30,000).

    To further my point, people in the U.S. are grossly under-educated and lack proper training to operate an automobile. Just like 43,000 suicides per year are 43,000 too many, just like 14,000 homicides are 14,000 too many (and yes, 9,500 were from firearm use), and finally, 30,000 motor vehicle deaths are 30,000 too many.

    People care about the 43,000 victims of suicide. People care about the 14,000 homicides. People dismiss the 30,000 motor vehicle fatalities as “accidents”.

  • Slexie

    Oh how dear of you to take the time to go down whatever hole you fell into. Anyone with a brain knows having a gun in your house increases the chances of someone in said household being shot.

    Consider the story of town gas in the UK. In the 40s, 50s and most of the 60s, the UK got their flammable fuel from town gas which is gas produced from coal. It has a very high amount of carbon monoxide in it. A few breaths of the stuff and you were done for. It was supplied by pipes to different municipalities. The gas became a popular and much used medium for suicide. After the discovery of natural gas nearby, the UK began a conversion over to natural gas instead of town gas. When that happened in the early 70s, suicides in the UK dropped by one-third and have not risen since.

    There is no question that removing the means of performing suicide can prevent suicides. It has nothing to do with gun control, it has to do with the individuals in homes not giving the home access to firearms by keeping them locked up. Regardless, suicide can be an impulsive act, it’s not always a long simmering mental health issue.

    You really can’t compare murder to car accidents. People know how to drive safely, they just don’t. People know you’re not supposed to speed, drive recklessly, cut people off, run red lights, etc., but they don’t care. No amount of training is going to change that. But I don’t think people drive and plan on killing someone. If you shoot someone, I think your intentions are clear.

  • neroden

    My parents didn’t restrict me from playing with toy guns. Or toy swords. Or toy machetes. Or toy guillotines. Or… well, you get the picture.

    They simply encouraged us to take them seriously. They way you do when you watch Macbeth, or Hamlet, or whatever. There’s a reason kids play pretend story games involving brutal murder and death, all the time; it’s a weird form of practice for dealing with the horrors of the real world in a safe setting. We played knights fighting wars, but we understood perfectly well that medieval warfare was actually horrible and something to be avoided.

    I turned out fine, of course.

  • Carl Raymond S

    Even at 13,000, your gun death rate is about 5 times higher than here in Australia.

    Wikipedia has a page titled “List of countries by firearm-related death rate”, which also gives breakdown by Homicide, Suicide, Unintentional, Undetermined.

    In my entire life, I’ve met only one person who owned a handgun, and he was a migrant from the US. It’s a society acceptance thing. We view owning a handgun as strange/odd/peculiar/violent/nutcase behaviour. Most people don’t want to be thought of as strange/odd/peculiar etc.

  • Slexie

    Fantastic answer and stats!

  • Thanks for sharing this post that is very informative. Toy guns are toys which imitate real guns, but are designed for children to play with. From hand-carved wooden replicas to factory-produced pop guns and cap guns, toy guns come in all sizes, prices and materials such as wood, metal, plastic or any combination thereof. Many newer toy guns are brightly colored and oddly shaped to prevent them from being mistaken for real firearms.



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