Long gone are the days when kids bounced about on the back seats of moving cars, stuck their heads out of sun roofs or sat on a driving dad's knee to help steer at 30mph. Yet, even though it's five years since car seat laws were tightened for older kids, some confusion remains about what's allowed beyond the baby and toddler years.
CAR SEAT LAWS FOR OLDER CHILDREN
Children aged over three and up to the age of 12 (or when they reach 135cm tall if sooner) must, by law, use an 'appropriate car seat' – the only exceptions being:
In a licensed taxi or private hire vehicle
If they are "travelling a short distance for reason of unexpected necessity"
If there are two occupied child seats in the rear and you cannot fit a third
In these cases they are allowed to use the adult seat belt only. It is the driver's legal responsibility to ensure they are properly restrained – so if you give a lift to your son or daughter's classmate and their parents forget to lend you a car seat, you will still be the one the police tackle about it.
For children weighing over 15kg (around age four) and up to age 12 'appropriate car seat' means a Group 2/3 model. The name is a little confusing because in the past there were two separate stages for this age band, but now seats cover the whole period and there is no distinction.
TYPES OF GROUP 2/3 SEAT
There are three types of seat you can use during the Group 2/3 phase:
1. Standard booster cushions: Fundamentally a rigid cushion with seatbelt guides. Raises your child up so the seat belt is in a safer position - diagonally over their shoulder, rather than across their neck or chin. These do not offer any side impact protection.
2. Highback boosters: Lifts the child up but also provides more protection in the event of a side on collision. These tend to be pricier than standard boosters and bulkier/ less portable.
3. Group 123 'combination' seats: Can be used for children from around 12 months with a harness or impact cushion (see below) and then convert to highback boosters when your child reaches around 15kg. At this stage you remove the harness or impact cushion and your child is held in place by the adult seatbelt, again using guides to keep this at an appropriate height.
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
1. Safety should come first obviously. Whilst all child seats sold via reputable retailers in the UK must comply with minimum safety standards, some provide more protection than others in a collision. It's worth checking out Which's reviews as these involve independent crash tests.
Standard booster cushions are cheaper but, as mentioned above, they are not as safe as highback seats – the former are therefore best kept only for short, occasional journeys and holidays when it would not be practical to use a highback seat. Most Group 2/3 seats fit in most cars (compatibility is more of an issue with Group 0 and 1 models for babies and toddlers) but do check before buying just in case, and especially if your car has bucket/ sports seats.
2. Note that only a few Group 2/3 seats have ISOFIX (and these will be the highback type) – the rest are held in by the adult seat belt. ISOFIX seats stay in place more firmly and although they cost more, we think that if your car has the fixing points (all newer vehicles do), they're worth hunting down for the extra security.
3. Comfort. With one seat hopefully lasting your child all the way from age four to the pre-teens, you need it to be fairly roomy. Highback boosters should ideally have an adjustable headrest so you can move this up as your child grows. A few have a reclining backrest but this won't be needed so much at this age as older kids are less likely to nap on the move.
4. Washable or wipe-clean covers.
5. Portability. If you'll need to move the seat between cars quite often, look for a seat which isn't too bulky or heavy. Otherwise, if it will just stay in one vehicle, this is less of an issue.
PARENTDISH GROUP 2/3 CAR SEAT BEST BUYS
1. Concord Transformer XT, £249.99, www.concord.de
Exceptionally luxurious – it could be described as the Aston Martin of car seats! Although it's pricey, it should allow your child to travel in supreme comfort and style for many years. The width and headrest height are a doddle to adjust and the fabric is lovely and smooth, covering a nicely padded seat.
Performs very well in safety tests, and features ISOFIX plugs plus indicators to show the seat is attached properly. Available in six different colourways.
Good for: All-round comfort and safety, with smart looks too.
Not so good for: It's expensive and not very portable – you wouldn't want to be swapping it between cars too often. Plus older kids might complain that it seems too much like a baby seat given the deep sides (but these are what keep them safer in a collision which is surely more important!).
2. Graco Junior Maxi, £49.99, www.graco.co.uk
A comfortable highback seat which cleverly converts into a standard, backless booster when needed (for example, if your child is going home from school with another family). Kids love the retractable drinks holders, whilst the head and arm rests are adjustable.
Great value, considering it costs little more than a standard booster seat.
Good for: The way it can be converted into a backless booster when needed. Also perfect for second cars or families on a tight budget.
Not so good for: Not quite as comfortable as some more expensive options for longer journeys.
3. Britax Kidfix SICT, £169.99, www.britax.co.uk
A top performer in crash tests, the Kidfix offers reassuring levels of safety and is another of the small number of Group 2/3 ISOFIX seats on the market. This updated version of the standard Kidfix seat now offers Britax's innovative 'Side Impact Cushion Technology' - air-filled cushions on the seat sides to absorb energy in a collision.
Good for: Excellent crash protection.
Not so good for: Cheaper than the Concord but still pricier than most Group 2/3 seats.
4. Trunki BoostApak, £44.99, www.trunki.co.uk
Whilst highback boosters are the safer option, there are times when it's simply not practical to lug around a huge, heavy car seat, such as on days out and holidays. This clever booster seat solves this problem by adding rucksack style straps which you can throw over your (or your child's!) shoulders. Even better, it doubles as a bag, with a zip-able interior compartment for carrying around toys or kid essentials (don't worry, they won't get squashed as the seat's shell is rigid).
Good for: Holidays and a funky design with plenty of 'kid appeal'.
Not so good for: it won't provide the same protection as a highback booster so shouldn't be for everyday use. Although much lighter than most car seats, it's still a little heavy for younger kids to carry, even without anything stowed in it.
5. Cybex Pallas, £185, www.mamasandpapas.com
If your child is just coming out of their Group 0+ seat and you've an eye on the future, this combined Group 123 seat will see them all the way through to age 12.
Up to age four it's used with the impact cushion which is designed to hold children in place instead of a harness and absorb energy in a collision. Such cushions take a little getting used to but after a couple of journeys most kids love them because they double as a handy place to rest toys and books.
After the Group 1 stage, you simply remove the cushion and use the seat in the same way as any other highback booster. Your child still benefits from the reclining backrest, and height adjustable, extra-deep headrest. Comes in a choice of funkily vibrant or neutral colours.
Good for: Being two (very good) seats for the price of one.
Not so good for: If your child is already past the Group 1 stage there's obviously no point coughing up the extra for this – check out the Cybex Solution X (£120) instead which is in effect the Pallas minus the impact cushion.
Liat Hughes Joshi is author of What to Buy for Your Baby (published by White Ladder Press/ Crimson) and Raising Children: The Primary Years (published by Pearson Prentice Hall Life).