Which child car seat should you buy?
Our Choice Buy child car seats not only provide excellent crash protection but they are also easy to install and use, ensuring they are correctly fitted every time
It may be that the most dangerous thing your baby or child is likely to do on a daily basis is to travel in a car, and so parents and guardians must ensure that their small passengers are as well protected as possible by using a good-quality child car seat that is correctly installed in their vehicle.
Our rigorous tests measure the level of protection each car seat model will provide in the event of a frontal or side impact but testers also assess how straightforward each car seat is to use, what is the likelihood that it will be incorrectly installed in a car, and how simple is it to fasten a child into the seat and to adjust the harness, straps and so on as the child grows.
Experts also consider the space and comfort afforded to the child by the car seat and how much room the restraint will take up in a car. All these criteria are combined to arrive at the overall score and only those child car seats reaching the highest standards are awarded Choice Buy status.
The law requires that babies and children travelling in a car or goods vehicle (apart from a taxi) must be secured in a child restraint appropriate for their height and weight until they reach 4 feet 11 inches or 5 stones 9 pounds. It is the driver's responsibility to ensure that all passengers are using seat belts or the appropriate child restraint and a minimum of three penalty points plus a fine will be incurred by a driver who allows a child to travel without the proper restraint.
When it comes to determining which child car seat is appropriate, weight and height are the key considerations rather than age. Child car seats in Europe currently fall under two regulations that are running in tandem with one another. Under the older regulation, UNECE R44, which is likely to remain in force for another few years, child car seats are categorised by weight. (See our box, right, for details on the different weight groups.) However, newer regulations under the R129 standard have been adopted that are running concurrently with the older rules and have introduced changes that mean that height, rather than weight, is the key determining factor when selecting the right car seat for your child.
The i-Size Standard
In July 2013, R129 entered into force aimed at strengthening safety standards for child car seats, and this regulation introduced the new European-wide i-Size classification.
The i-Size standard seeks to make it easier for parents to choose the appropriate child car seat by basing their decision on the child's height, rather than age or weight considerations as is the case with the older R44 regulation, which was found to be confusing for consumers. A key aspect of the new provision is the requirement that children be kept in rearward-facing child car seats until they are 15 months of age, instead of up to 9 or 12 months, as advised in the previous EU regulation.
The new standard adds side impact tests to the frontal impact tests required under the older regulation and child car seats made to the i-Size standard will fit in all 'i-Size ready' cars, which will provide Isofix fittings that will enable the child restraint to be securely and directly fitted to the frame of the vehicle.
More stringent standards and regulations and ever-improving design are all very well, but unless the child car seat is actually fitted correctly, the child's protection will be severely compromised. At a minimum, your child's car seat should be compatible with your car and fitted correctly - but all too often this is not the case.
As part of its Check It Fits campaign, the Road Safety Authority of Ireland (RSA) has indicated that one in ten child car seats in use are not compatible with the car in which it is placed. Even more alarmingly, the organisation has found that three in four child car seats are incorrectly fitted. This means that the car seat is unable to provide the protection it is designed to offer in the event of a collision - and, as the RSA notes, an incorrectly fitted child car seat can lead to serious injury or even death in the event of a collision.
The RSA site offers detailed and valuable information on how to fit child car seats for the different weight groups as well as outlining best practice for transporting premature babies that fall under the minimum weight. In addition, the RSA continues to run its Check It Fits campaign - an invaluable free service for parents and guardians who want to ensure that they are using the right child car seat and installing it correctly. (See our Check It Fits box for details.)
Rear-facing versus forward-facing
Rear-facing car seats afford much greater protection than forward-facing seats. The RSA notes that children are five times safer in rear-facing seats than forward-facing seats, and, according to the European Child Safety Alliance, whereas a forward-facing child car seat reduces injuries by 60% compared to using no child restraint, rearward-facing seats reduce injuries by 90%. This is due to the fact that babies' heads are much heavier in relation to their bodies than those of older children or adults and their neck muscles have not developed sufficiently so that, in a frontal impact in a forward-facing seat, the forces placed on a baby's neck by their head can be too great to withstand.
However, if the baby is in a rear-facing seat, a frontal impact will result in the child being pushed further into the seat, supporting the head and back and limiting the movement of the head and the pressure on the neck. For this reason, the new R129 regulation mandates that babies are restrained in rearward-facing car seats until they are at least 15 months old.
Many parents move their child to forward-facing seats too quickly but the new i-Size standard is designed to make it more comfortable for children to remain in rearward-facing seats - and hence more protected - for longer. In addition, more child car seats are becoming available that can keep children rearward-facing until they are four years or even older.
Other safety precautions
Once you have bought a good-quality car seat and fitted it correctly, there are a few other things that you can do to make sure that your child is as safe as they can possibly be:
* Avoid strapping your child into a child car seat in a bulky jacket as this can reduce the effectiveness of the car seat and bulky clothes can cause a child to slide out of the restraint in the event of a collision. Instead, use blankets placed over the harness to keep your child warm.
* Beware of buckle crunch and ensure that only the webbing of the belt goes across the seat frame. If the buckle of the adult seat belt lies across the frame of the child car seat, pressure exerted in the event of an accident or even sudden braking could cause the buckle to fail, potentially opening and allowing the child to be flung out of the seat completely unrestrained.
* Ensure that the harness straps are at the right height just above your child's shoulders and that they are not too tight or too loose. The harness should be sufficiently snug that only one finger should fit under the straps.
* When using an adult seat belt in conjunction with a booster seat or cushion, ensure that the lap belt does not lie across the abdomen but that it instead rests on the child's hips. The belt should also sit at the child's shoulder rather than across the neck or arm.
* A rearward-facing child car seat should not be used in the front passenger seat unless the passenger airbag has been deactivated, as if the airbag went off it would strike the child car seat with considerable force.
These product tests are extracted from 'Consumer Choice', the online magazine of the Consumers' Association of Ireland (CAI), and are carried out for the CAI by independent consumer research organisation International Consumer Research and Testing. For more information see thecai.ie
1. Maxi-Cosi Pebble Plus, €259 (from Birth)
The Choice Buy Maxi-Cosi Pebble Plus, an updated version of a previous Choice Buy, the Maxi-Cosi Pebble, is suitable from birth and is i-Size approved. This car seat may be secured either using a car's adult seat belts or via the manufacturer's 2WayFix base (costing around €250) with a support leg that rests on the car floor - and both configurations yielded a high level of crash protection in our tests. The Pebble Plus will last until a child is 75cm tall, so it should be suitable for babies up until they are around 12 months old, at which point, owners of a 2WayFix base might like to swap this seat for the Maxi-Cosi 2WayPearl, designated a Choice Buy in our October 2014 report and suitable for children up to 105cm in height or around four years of age. Installing this seat is quick and simple, with little chance of incorrect fitting, and it is roomy and well padded with good leg support for small passengers - though when combined with the 2WayFix base, this is a bulky seat that will take up a good deal of space in the back of a car.
2. Britax Kidfix SL SICT, €200 (from 15kg)
The Choice Buy Britax Kidfix SL SICT is an excellent car seat for children who weigh between 15kg and 36kg, which corresponds to between approximately 4 and 12 years. The manufacturer touts this seat's side-impact cushion technology (SICT) and indeed, the Kidfix SL SICT scored top marks in our side-impact tests, providing first-rate protection, and children will also be well protected from injury in the event of a frontal collision. This seat won't be a hassle to use - fitting it correctly in your car using either the adult seat belts or the 'soft-latch Isofix system' is very intuitive and problem-free, as is buckling up and adjusting the shoulder straps. Cleaning is made simple thanks to the easily removable and machine-washable cover. This seat will likely take up quite a bit of space in your car, but it offers very good comfort for your child and, at 5.7kg, it is not too heavy to lift if you need to swap it between cars.
3. Cybex Solution M-Fix, €220 (from 15kg)
The Choice Buy Cybex Solution M-fix can be fitted into a car using either the adult seat belts or the Isofix connectors - and both methods will deliver equally excellent protection for your child. In our labs, this seat earned four stars in our frontal impact tests and, with the help of the manufacturer's linear side-impact protection system, garnered a particularly impressive five stars in side impact tests. Designed for children weighing from 15kg to 36kg, this seat is solidly built and intuitive to use, with little likelihood of incorrect installation in your car. In addition, testers had no problem with fastening buckles, adjusting straps, or cleaning the removable, machine-washable cover, generating a very good overall ease-of-use score. With plenty of padding and an adjustable backrest, your child should be very comfortable in this seat - however, it does take up quite a bit of space in the back of a car, which is something to consider if you have more than one car seat you are trying to fit in.
4. Cybex Cloud Q, €305 (from Birth)
Another child car seat that may be used from birth and that narrowly missed out on achieving Choice Buy status is the Cybex Cloud Q. A Group 0+ child car seat, it is suitable for children until they reach a weight of 13kg, and it provided excellent protection in our impact tests. This seat may be installed using the Q Fix Isofix base, priced separately at around €150, or via the car's adult seat belts - with both configurations yielding high safety scores. Retractable side impact rods are designed to help direct the force of the impact away from the small passenger, but parents will need to remember to put these into position in order for them to do their job. The Cybex Cloud Q may be used as part of a travel system with a compatible pushchair and has the advantage of being able to be fully reclined, allowing a baby to lie flat when the seat is used outside the car. It is also nicely padded and roomy enough to provide a good level of comfort.
5. Britax Kidfix SL, €130 (From 15kg)
The Britax Kidfix SL just missed out on being deemed a Choice Buy, not scoring quite as highly as its sibling, the Britax Kidfix SL SICT, which offers superior side-impact protection. Nonetheless, the Kidfix SL - a high-backed booster seat that is suitable for children from 15kg to 36kg (corresponding to around 4-12 years) - achieved very good scores in the impact tests across the board and has the advantage of being particularly easy to use with little chance of this seat being incorrectly fitted in a car. It has soft latches that can be slotted into Isofix connectors for those cars that have them - and this will keep the seat in place when it is not in use - though the seat can also be installed solely via the vehicle's adult seat belts. Testers noted that this car seat is fairly bulky, so you will need to check there is room for it in your car, and though the seat is spacious and well-padded, it is quite upright, which could affect comfort.