How to ensure child safety in cars for long periods

There are a few reasons why it’s so important to understand how to properly protect your child’s safety while they’re in a car. A recent research by the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare indicates that car accidents are one of the leading causes of injury and death of kids under 14. Part of the reason for this is the confusion around best practices and laws for child safety on the road – particularly when it comes to child car seats.

Age or size? How to protect your child’s safety according to both the law and best practice.

  • Children up to the age of six months must be secured in an approved rearward facing restraint
  • Children aged from six months to four years old must be secured in either a rear or forward facing approved child restraint with an inbuilt harness
  • Children under four years cannot travel in the front seat of a vehicle with two or more rows
  • Children aged from four to seven years old must be secured in a forward-facing approved child restraint with an inbuilt harness or an approved booster seat
  • Children aged from four to seven years old cannot travel in the front seat of a vehicle with two or more rows, unless all other back seats are occupied by children younger than seven years in an approved child restraint or booster seat
  • Children aged seven years and older must use a booster seat with an adult lap-sash seatbelt or child safety harness, or a standard seat with an adult seatbelt.
  • Children aged from seven to 16 years old who are too small to be restrained by a seatbelt properly adjusted and fastened are strongly recommended to use an approved booster seat
  • Children in booster seats must be restrained by a suitable lap and sash type approved seatbelt that is properly adjusted and fastened, or by a suitable approved child safety harness that is properly adjusted and fastened

However, and this is where the confusion comes in, best practice deems that you should always use the appropriate restraint for your child’s size. This means that while the law may state something different, you shouldn’t progress your child to the next seat type until they’re ready in terms of size.

You might think this is obvious, but unfortunately it’s not. In fact, the Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne (RCH) completed research in early 2019 that found that many Australian children aren’t travelling in the safest restraint or position in the car – even though parents are following the law. The same report found that only 3% of parents are aware that children must be at least 145cm tall to safely travel with an adult seatbelt in a booster seat.

What are the best practices for child safety and child car seats in terms of size?

As it is always safest for a child to be placed in a seat that’s most appropriate for their size, the law allows children who are too small for their lawfully specified child car seat to stay in their current seat until they grow big enough for the next age group. Additionally, children who become too big for the child car seat type assigned to their age group can move up.

Although infants older than six months can use a forward-facing restraint, they will be safest if they remain in their rear-facing restraint as long as they still fit in it. Similarly, once your child can no longer use a rear-facing restraint, they should use a forward-facing child restraint until they no longer fit in it even if they are more than four years old. Again, once your child grows out of the forward-facing child restraint, they should use a booster seat with a lap-sash seat belt until it is appropriate for them to move to an adult seat.

When should you move your child to an adult seat?

 Experts suggest following a five-step test to determine whether or not your child is ready to move from a child car seat to an adult seat:

  • Firstly, can they sit with their back firmly against the seat?
  • Secondly, can they bend their knees comfortably over the front seat cushion?
  • Thirdly, can they sit with the sash belt across their mid-shoulder?
  • Fourthly, can they sit with the lap belt across the top of their thighs?
  • Lastly, will they stay in this position for the whole car trip?

What’s the best position for my child in the car?

It’s not all about child car seats. You also need to think about the best seat in terms of child safety. It’s recommended by VicRoads that if your child is under the age of 12 years old, you shouldn’t place them in the front seat. This is because airbags are not designed with children in mind. If you do get into an accident, the airbag could increase your child’s chance of injury rather than decrease it. Children seated in the front are twice as likely to be injured in a car accident than children seated at the back, so unless it’s absolutely unavoidable you should place children in the rear seat.  

How else can I keep my child safe in the car?

Aside from following the law and best practices for child car seats and positioning, you should also carefully research the type of car seats and restraints you buy. Be sure they are all installed properly and to standard. Also, in the unfortunate event that you do get into an accident, make sure that you’re properly covered by your car insurance. It is also good to bring your car for regular maintenance to ensure it is safe to drive on the road. Precaution is better than cure.