I’ve been conducting research at NeuRA into injuries sustained by children in car crashes for many years, and I shudder when I see a mother travelling in a car with a baby on her lap or a father putting the shoulder part of the seatbelt under his child’s arm instead of across the shoulder.
About 70 Australian children die each year in car crashes and thousands more are seriously injured. We can prevent the vast majority of these deaths and injuries if all children are optimally restrained every time they travel in a car.
From 2010, new laws came into effect in Australia that require all children up to the age of seven to use a child restraint or booster seat. But while these laws are a great step forward, they are the bare minimum and we can do better.
You see, it’s not just when you put a child in a restraint inappropriate for their size (such as using a seatbelt before the child is really big enough) or don’t use a restraint at all that causes serious injury in a crash; using a restraint incorrectly (such as putting the shoulder part of a seatbelt under your child’s arm or behind their back, or not strapping a baby in tightly enough) also significantly increases their risk.
This was our incentive for developing these new guidelines; we want to advise parents that they should not be in a hurry to move their children to the next type of child restraint before the child is tall enough – even if it’s technically legal. It’s also important to use their restraint correctly, so it can do its job properly.
Here are a few examples of how the new guidelines go further than the current law:
- The law allows babies over 6 months to use either a rear-facing or a forward-facing restraint. The new guidelines advise that babies are safest if they remain in their rear-facing restraint as long they still fit in it.
- The law allows children 4 years and older to use either a forward-facing restraint (with a built-in harness) or a booster seat (that uses the car’s lap-sash seatbelt). The new guidelines advise that children should use the forward-facing restraint until they can’t fit in it any more as it offers better protection.
- The law allows children 7 years and older to use either a booster seat or just the car’s lap sash seatbelt on its own. The new guidelines advise that children should use a booster seat until they are tall enough to fit properly into the car’s seatbelt.
So at what age will your child be tall enough? There’s no one ‘magic’ age, because children vary so much in height, and cars are also different sizes. You can use the ’5 step test’ to check (see right).
You might be surprised to hear that most children won’t pass this test until they are about 11 or 12 years old (or 145-150cm tall). Instead, they tend to slouch down in the seat, and the seatbelt sits across their tummy or neck, increasing their risk of serious abdominal and spinal injuries. While using a booster for this long this may seem inconvenient to parents, and uncool to children, it’s what the evidence tells us is safest.
We also hope that having the best evidence-based information about child restraint use in one place will reduce confusion and make it less likely that parents will receive conflicting advice from different sources.
NeuRA and Kidsafe, together with Australia’s leading child road safety experts, have developed these national guidelines to cover all aspects of keeping kids safe in cars. They have been approved by the National Health and Medical Research Council.
The bottom line is to always use the right type of restraint for your child’s size until they are really too big for it, make sure that you install it correctly, and buckle your child in correctly, every trip. The full details are available from our website.