We all want our kids to be safe when they're in the car. But using safety restraints wrongly can put children at as much risk as not using them at all.
Over half (51 per cent) of kids' car seats are fitted incorrectly, according to a 2014 study of 1,800 UK family cars by Car Seat Safety Ltd. Shockingly, last year the BBC's Watchdog programme found that 90 per cent of car seats installed by high street retailers weren't properly fitted, while a recent survey by Which? revealed that one in five grandparents doesn't bother with car seats for their grandchildren.
Part of the problem is that not all car seats fit all cars. Different vehicles have differently shaped back seats, different length seatbelts and different headrests – so what fits safely in one car might not be right for another.
If you're in doubt, see if the seat manufacturer has made a YouTube video for guidance, consult a trained fitter or look out for a car seat clinic in your area – many councils run them as part of the nationwide Good Egg Car Safety campaign.
Always try a seat before you buy it if you can, and check that it has the 'E' symbol to show that it meets European safety standards. Safety organisations advise against buying second hand as even a minor accident could have weakened the seat. Bear in mind too that car seats have a lifespan – normally five to ten years – after which the materials may start to deteriorate.
Another complication is that there are currently two sets of car seat regulations running concurrently. In the UK, children's car seats have to conform to either the ECE regulations R44.04 or R44.03, or the new iSize regulation R129. Eventually the law will probably change to allow only seats that meet R129.
Car seats – ages and stages
All children travelling in the front or back of any private car, van or goods vehicle must, by law, be in a car seat appropriate for their age and height. This applies until they reach either 135cm or 12 years old, after which they can continue using a booster or wear the adult seat belt. (The law is different for taxis, buses, minibuses and coaches, and in some exceptional circumstances.) It's the driver's responsibility to make sure all under-14s in the car are using the correct seats or restraints.
For babies and young children, whose heads are relatively large and heavy in comparison with their bodies, rearward-facing seats give much better protection for their head, neck and spine than forward-facing ones. Under the new iSize regulations (which don't yet cover all UK car seats – see above), babies should travel in rearward-facing seats until they're at least 15 months old, and in some European countries the limit is four years old.
Researchers in the UK and US have found that being in a car seat for extended periods can raise babies' heart and respiratory rates and lower their blood-oxygen levels – effects that can very occasionally be fatal – so manufacturers now recommend that young children don't use their car seat for more than two hours without a break.
Children are always safer travelling in the back of the car, and should never be placed in a rearward-facing seat in the front passenger seat if there is an active airbag. Only move your child up to the next stage of car seat when they reach the maximum weight limit or the top of their head is higher than the seat back. Don't rush to get them into a new seat if their legs are scrunched or dangling, or to give them a better view – they'll be safer in their current seat.
For older children, high-backed booster seats with side wings give far greater protection in an accident than booster cushions. Regulations on the use of backless boosters are being reviewed, and it's likely that they will be phased out from 2017.
Every time you put your child in the car, check the fit of their straps. Harnesses should be tight enough that you can just fit one or two fingers underneath – no more. Older children should have the lap part of their belt over their pelvic region, not their stomach, and the diagonal part over their shoulder, not their neck.
Although it can be a hassle, take children out of thick coats or snowsuits before you strap them in. Not only do padded coats mean their harness may not fit closely enough to keep them safe, but they can also make it easier for little ones to slip their straps off. There's a risk of your child overheating as the car warms up too. For babies, try using a wrap-around car seat liner or lightweight blankets instead.
Never travel with a baby on your lap or tucked into your own seatbelt, even for a few minutes. If they need feeding or comforting, ask the driver to pull over. The Child Accident Prevention Trust says trying to hold a young baby in the force of a 30mph crash is equivalent to trying to hold eight bags of cement – i.e. impossible. Legally you can travel in a taxi with your baby or child unrestrained, but would you want to take this risk?
Ensure keys, loose change, phones, water bottles, purses, groceries and anything else that could cause an injury in an impact are stored securely. A US study found that unrestrained objects in cars cause over 13,000 injuries a year there.
It's safest not to let young children eat or drink in the car. If they choke, you might not notice or be able to help them quickly enough. Distraction is another danger, so make sure your child understands that you need to concentrate on the road – not them – while you're driving.
It might be horrible to think about, but be prepared in case you're ever in an accident, breakdown or lengthy hold-up with your child in the car. It's a good idea to label their car seat with their name, date of birth and any medical conditions, so that emergency services personnel can get essential information if you're not able to give it.
Make sure your phone is fully charged before you travel, and if you have breakdown cover, keep the details handy. Put together a safety pack including a first-aid kit, warning triangle and torch, as well as drinking water, snacks, blankets, baby essentials and a waterproof or umbrella. Hopefully you'll never need to use them – but if the worst happens you'll be glad you planned ahead.
Written for the Pre-school Learning Alliance by Elyssa Campbell-Barr.