It's five years since UK car seat laws were tightened, and with compelling evidence of the impact child seats have on saving lives, why are so many parents still taking risks with their offspring's safety?
Well, according to new research from car seat maker, Britax, which found that one in five parents regularly break laws on this, there are a host of excuses. Among reasons given by those surveyed were being 'too lazy' and 'not always having time'. Other parents simply didn't feel car seats were necessary. Meanwhile, less than 40, and of a one- to four-year-old doing so, by 54%.
A properly installed car seat will prevent a child being thrown about the vehicle (or worse ejected from it) in a collision, potentially injuring other passengers as well as themselves, and will absorb some of the force of the impact.
So what can you do to keep your children as safe as possible on the move?
FOLLOW THE LAW
Sometimes doing so is inconvenient but the rules are there for good reason. Here's a summary:
BABIES AND CHILDREN UP TO THREE
• Must use an appropriate child restraint.
• It is illegal to carry a child sitting in a rear-facing child restraint in the front passenger seat with an active airbag.
• In a licensed taxi or hire car, if a child car seat is not available then the child may travel unrestrained in the rear. This is the only exception for children under three, and has been introduced for practical rather than safety reasons.
CHILDREN OVER THREE AND UP TO EITHER THEIR 12TH BIRTHDAY OR WHEN THEY REACH 135CM TALL
Children must use the correct restraint but at this stage there are three exceptions in which they can use the adult seat belt:
1) In a licensed taxi
2) On a short journey "for reason of unexpected necessity" (something like a child needing a lift in an emergency, but not, for example, going in another family's car to a planned sports match or 'playdate' at their house).
3) If there are two occupied child restraints in the rear which mean you can't fit a third child seat in.
If there are no rear seatbelts a child over three is also allowed to travel unrestrained.
WHAT HAPPENS IF YOU BREAK THE LAW?
Fines for not using an appropriate car seat for a child can be up to £500. Additionally, insurance companies might not provide cover in the event of a claim and you could face civil legal proceedings if a child in your care was injured when not properly restrained in the car.
But of course, worse than all this, is the idea that they could be injured in itself, or killed, when it was entirely preventable.
ALSO CONSIDER OTHER GENERAL ADVICE:
Don't buy a second-hand seat unless you know for sure that it hasn't been involved in an accident (evidence might not be visible). Any damage could compromise its safety in a future collision. Cynics think this is a view put out there by car seat manufacturers to sell more of their products, but note that even insurance companies (not known for paying out unless there's good reason!) will usually replace a child seat which has been involved in a collision.
If you do buy second hand, ensure the instructions are included, avoid older seats which might not be up to modern safety standards, and only buy from a trusted friend or member of your family who will be honest about the seat's history.
Realistically parents will re-use their first child's car seat for a second or subsequent child - this is fine, provided it's still fairly new and in good condition.
Never put a rear-facing baby seat in the front passenger seat of the car if there's an airbag fitted. It's against the law and dangerous if the airbag is deployed.
It's the driver's responsibility to ensure baby and child passengers are in appropriate car seats, even if they are not the parent.
WHEN CHOOSING A SEAT FOR YOUR CHILD THINK ABOUT:
Buy from reputable retailers, only consider products with the safety standards UN ECE R44.03 or R44.04 mark (all car seats sold in the UK should comply to these), and search online for information about independent safety tests, (try www.which.co.uk)
Look for deep side impact protection wings to protect your child in a side-on collision.
Always ensure the seat fits properly in your vehicle. Some manufacturers have fitting guides so you can check compatibility with your make and model of car. Some retailers will fit the seat for you and a few local councils offer car seat fitting workshops or advice too.
ISOFIX car seats are attached via plugs directly to the chassis of the car, instead of wrapping the adult seat belt around them. They creates a more rigid link between seat and vehicle and makes correct installation easier. ISOFIX seats typically work out more expensive than belted ones but are worth shelling out the extra for if possible, and provided your vehicle has the ISOFIX sockets (all newer cars have them).
Check the seat is installed correctly every time you put the seat back in the car and attach the seat belt around it/ plug it into ISOFIX points.
Move your child to the next stage car seat when they reach the maximum weight for the one they're currently using. Do not base this on age - it's weight which matters more. Keep babies in a rear-facing seat for as long as possible - it's safer.
The exception to the weight rule is if your child's eyes are above the level of the top of the seat in which case you need to move them to the next stage seat up.
Here's a list of the different groups and weight ranges:
Faces Weight range Approx. age range
Group 0 rear birth to 10kg birth to 9 months
Group 0+ rear birth to 13kg birth to 15 months
Group 1 forward 9kg to 18kg 9 months to 4 years
Group 2/3 forward 15kg to 36kg 3 to 12 years
Group 0 only seats are relatively unusual these days - most are Group 0+.
Group 2/3 seats can be boosters with just a cushion to raise your child up, or 'highback boosters' with a back and usually some side impact protection - the latter are safer for everyday use but a booster cushion is better than nothing when it's not practical to have a highback booster with you (e.g. when travelling).
Click here for our guide to newborn car seats.
Reviews and buying advice: Newborn car seats and car seats for older children (group 2/3)
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of What to Buy for Your Baby.
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