Top tips for keeping your kids safe in the car
Even parents with the best of intentions seem to have a blind spot when it comes to child car seats, with many children still being carried unsafely on our roads
A few weeks ago, as I drove down the road, I was met with an extraordinary, and frankly frightening, sight.
In the car in front, a two year old was climbing onto the back at the rear window. His car seat was visible, but his mother had clearly failed to strap him in. She sat in the front driving, seatbelt on, chatting away to a friend or relative in the passenger seat as her son bounced around the car without a care in the world. Had she turned left and travelled about 100 metres up the road she would have arrived at an accident blackspot.
Brian Farrell, communications manager with the Road Safety Authority, doesn’t mince words when told this story. “It’s no exaggeration to say that it’s a form of child abuse,” he says.
“Where you have parents driving down the road and the front seat passengers are wearing seatbelts, and the children aren’t, there’s no question that it’s child abuse. I couldn’t think of a more selfish act. If there was a crash that child would be thrown around the car like a projectile and quite possibly thrown out the window. That is extraordinarily dangerous. A child would probably not survive a collision in such a situation,” says Farrell.
Figures from the Road Safety Authority show that 77pc of child fatalities in collisions between 1996 and 2000 were due to a lack or misuse of a child restraint car seat.
No child should be responsible for their own safety, adds Farrell. And clearly the law would agree. Late last month, the number of penalty points served on drivers for seatbelt offences was increased. Drivers who break the law, or who allow passengers in their car to go without seatbelts, will now receive three penalty points. The harsher penalty also extends to drivers who fail to ensure their children are adequately restrained.
At present, the law states that any child under 150cm (around 4 foot 11 inches) and less than 36 kilograms must use a child seat or booster seat. Roughly speaking, that means that children up to the age of 11 should be using a booster seat. Yet many parents in Ireland take away car and booster seats at a much younger age.
Farrell stresses that the majority of parents are concerned about their child’s welfare and want to ensure they are adequately strapped in. But when it comes to car safety, many parents – of both newborns and older children –put their children in danger because they do not know, or have never been shown, how to fit a car seat.
John Cummins, patrol supervisor with the AA, says that when out attending to breakdowns he and his fellow patrols often come across incorrectly fitted car seats.
“We’ll come across parents with top-of-the-range car seats, and obviously safety is a priority for them, but the seat isn’t properly secured. It’s really, really important that you have the correct car seat for your child’s weight and size, that the seat you have is compatible with your vehicle and that it’s correctly fitted. By doing everything correctly you are significantly reducing the risks to your child in the event of an accident,” says Cummins.
“Take your time, every time, when installing it to make sure that it’s fitted correctly and that your child is safely secured. Never ever carry a child on your lap in the car, regardless of how short a journey you are taking,” he adds.
Expectant parents can find it a little overwhelming buying a car seat for the first time. Cummins says any retailer worth their salt will have expert staff on hand to advise about car seats.
“Tell them the make and model of your car and ask them to show you the range of appropriate seats that they have. All new seats are tested to European standards. Look for the E mark on the seat. Seats for newborn babies are also usually marked group 0 and 0+ and have been made with enough padding and support for your baby,” says Cummins.
“My recommendation would be not to leave without getting the retailer to give you a demonstration on how to fit your car seat correctly and how to adjust the harness for when your baby arrives.”
Cummins says it’s always best to buy your car seat from a retailer so that you benefit from expert advice and fitting services. You should never use a second-hand seat if you don’t know its history as it could be damaged or have been involved in a collision in the past, he adds.
“Before you accept a seat from a friend or family member check with both the car seat and vehicle manufacturers that the seat is compatible with your car. It’s also a good idea to get your seat checked by an expert.”
The Road Safety Authority provides a free ‘Check it Fits’ service that makes sure seats are correctly fitted. The authority’s experts tour the country on a full-time basis. You can check when they’ll be in your area at www.rsa.ie/checkitfits.
Cummins says that before buying any car seat you should check your child’s weight, and do so regularly as they grow. Seats are currently sold by weight and height rather than age. The AA has a weight chart for child restraints on its website at www.theaa.ie.
Keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible, adds Cummins. “Resist the temptation to move your child into a front-facing seat even if strapping them in to the rear-facing one becomes a bit of a battle. We can’t emphasis enough that the safest position for your child to be is rear-facing; keep them in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible.”
While current guidelines say you should keep our child rear-facing until they reach at least 13kg, Farrell recommends that parents keep their children in the rear-facing position up until 14 or 15 months. Scandinavian countries are leading the charge in this regard, and it is anticipated it will soon become a legal requirement for children in Ireland to remain in a rear-facing seat up until 15 months.
Car seats should never be fitted in the front passenger seat, and Isofix points should be used if your car is fitted with them, adds Farrell. Most modern cars have Isofix points as standard. These fitting points are built into both your car and the child car seats when they’re manufactured, making car seats more secure.
“You can check your vehicle’s manual to find out where the Isofix points are although in most cases they’re easy to locate by sight or by reaching your hand down the back of the seat,” says Cummins.
Once the car seat is fitted, a good way to test it is to pull hard on the seat harness. “If the seat doesn’t move then it is correctly fitted.”
Another common mistake is failing to adjust the shoulder strap on the harness in the seat as baby grows, according to Farrell.
“It can be quite uncomfortable for the child. The harness points are almost below the child’s shoulder blades. In fact they should be running on top of their shoulder. Often, where parents are saying their child is struggling to get out of the car seat all the time, it is because the child is uncomfortable,” says Farrell.
While the majority of parents in Ireland will put their children on a booster cushion by around the ages of five or six, Farrell warns against it. In fact, he says some manufacturers are going so far as to stop manufacturing booster cushions at all.
“We recommend the child stays in a high-back booster seat for as long as possible,” he says.
Studies have shown that the greatest threat children face in the event of a crash is high-impact side collisions. Booster seats don’t offer protection against these, whereas high-back seats do.
Farrell advises tackling pester power (as children get older they hate wearing their seats) head on. If your child is of a certain age, show them child crash test footage, for example.
While child road deaths are down dramatically in recent years, children are still dying on Irish roads. So far in 2014, 12 children have lost their lives on our roads, six of whom were pedestrians. If you do one thing today, check that your child is strapped in safely.
Top tips for child car safety
Weigh your child before you buy a car seat.
Make sure the seat is compatible with your car.
Ask the retailer to show you how to fit the seat.
Keep your child rear-facing for as long as possible – best practice guidelines say they should be kept rear-facing up until 15 months.
Fit your car seat in the back of your car. Avoid the temptation to put a car seat in the front passenger seat, as this could be fatal in a crash, especially if there are airbags.
Use Isofix points if your car is fitted with them.
Make sure the shoulder straps are adjusted properly.
Regularly check the car seat to make sure it is still secure.
Always check to make sure your child is strapped in.
Keep your child in a high-back seat until they are 150cm in height. Don’t use booster cushions.
The Road Safety Authority provides a free Check it Fits service, which allows parents to check if their car seats are correctly fitted. Its experts tour the country, with upcoming stops in Wicklow and Wexford over the next two weeks. You can check when they’ll be in your area at www.rsa.ie/checkitfits.
You can view the weight chart for child restraints on the AA website.