We’ve all seen those little yellow diamonds on the rear window: “Baby on Board!”
They’re a pet topic for people who like to grumble about things. “That’s all very nice,” they might say, “but what am I supposed to do with the information”.
They have a point. The implied intent is that we should drive a little more carefully when a baby-carrying car is in front of us. But some see this as irrational. Shouldn’t we be driving with full care and attention at all times, regardless of who’s in the car in front?
So why do people use Baby on Board stickers? When did they first appear? And do they actually have a useful purpose?
When Did Baby On Board Signs First Appear?
The yellow stickers are usually attributed to American Michael Lerner, who took an existing idea and brought it to the masses in 1984. While driving around with his infant nephew, Lerner realised that he was feeling more stressed than usual by tailgaters (people who drive too close). Like many a parent, he wanted to shout out “Hey don’t drive so aggressively, I’ve got a kid in here”. A little while later, he was put in touch with two sisters (Patricia and Helen Bradley), who’d been using ‘baby on board’ messages in their rear windows, having seen a similar idea in Germany. Lerner licenced the idea and put it to market. He’d hit a nerve. Within a year, over half a million stickers were selling every month.
So Why Do People Use Them?
As has already been pointed out, motorists should drive with full attention and due care at all times, not just when children are in adjacent vehicles. Sadly, though, the real world doesn’t always match our ideals. Tailgaters are legion. The sign is designed to appeal to the emotions rather than fulfill any rational purpose. It won’t deter every aggressive driver, but if even a few tailgaters ease off the gas, then it’s a useful sign to stick on your window.
This has to be balanced, however, with the downsides. The trouble with appealing to people’s emotions is that we don’t all share the same feelings and opinions. “Baby on Board!” might be enough to make most of us ease back, but it might also antagonise or distract those people who think the stickers are daft. Plus, putting any sticker on the rear window can partly obscure the view.
The Emergency Services Argument
One common rebuttal to the idea that the stickers are useless is that a ‘Baby on Board’ sign can be helpful to emergency services. In the event of a serious accident, first responders might spot the sticker and change their priorities accordingly. It sounds plausible, and may occasionally help emergency services know that there might be a small child in the wreckage who is not immediately apparent. Its use is, however, limited. A bad smash could easily knock out the rear window, or obscure the sticker from view. Plus, to be a truly reliably indicator, the sticker would have to be taken down whenever the child was not ‘on board’, which I suspect very few people ever do.
An Unlikely Cultural Icon
Despite their unclear value, the familiar stickers can still be seen in the rear windows of millions of cars worldwide. And the appeal of the message has spilled out into other areas of mass culture, too. Fans of The Simpsons may recall an early episode in which Homer forms a barbershop quartet with Barney, Principal Skinner and Apu. The foursome’s signature tune is a ditty inspired by the stickers. Once heard, you’ll have Baby on Board stuck in your head for the rest of your life.
The message has also been adapted for personal use. Transport for London produces Baby on Board pin badges, to be worn during pregnancy. The idea is that fellow passengers will spot the badge and give up their seat for someone who perhaps needs it more. The badges ditch the yellow triangle in favour of the tube’s famous roundel logo.
The classic Baby on Board sticker has been much copied and lampooned over the years. Almost immediately after release, knock-off versions began to flood the market. Alternative versions, such as “Baby I’m Bored” and “Mother-in-Law in the Trunk” soon followed. The stickers became somewhat unfashionable for many years, but have never quite dropped out of widespread circulation.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.