Child car seats – all you need to know

Man buckling his child into a car seat
If you are driving with children, you need to make sure they’re safe in the car. You also need to make sure you’re acting within the law – and the law is very clear about the proper use of child seats. Basically, any child under the age of 12 or shorter than 135cms (approximately 4ft 5in) must use an appropriate ‘child restraint’ – legalese for a car seat.

Legal penalties

The driver is deemed responsible for the correct use of restraints for children under the age of 14, and there is a £30 fixed penalty if anyone is caught flouting the law. You could also be fined up to a £500 if the case goes to court.

Weigh up

Most people assume the type of seat depends on the age of the child, but in fact it depends on the child’s weight. So it’s a good idea to weigh the child before you go shopping for a car seat – and change as and when necessary as the child grows.

Types of seats

There are various makes and models of car seats, and the exact specifications depend on the manufacturer. But as a rough guide…
  • new parents should opt for a rear-facing baby seat, which is usually suitable for infants up to 13kg
  • when the baby gets a bit bigger, you will probably need to upgrade to a forward or rear-facing baby seat for a child between 9kg and 18kg
Try not to move your baby into a forward-facing seat too early as you could risk greater neck and head injuries if you are involved in a crash.
  • forward-facing child seats are designed for children between 15kg and 25kg
  • finally, the booster cushion is appropriate for children over 22kg.

Isofix or not?

Car seats are often described as ‘universal’ but they do not necessarily fit every car. It’s therefore important to check before you buy – and check every car you are likely to travel in. You also need to think about whether your car can accommodate an Isofix seat. The Isofix system allows you to firmly fit a seat to the frame of the car using two or three anchor points, usually instead of the seat belt. Isofix is standard in most new cars, but it’s worth checking to make sure.

Comfort and protection

Most retailers will offer advice on car seats. Experts also recommend you take the baby or child with you when you buy. You can then feel confident the seat affords the right level of protection and the infant is comfortable.

Safety standards

Whichever car seat you choose, it should conform to the appropriate United Nations safety standard, ECE Regulation 44/03 or ECE 44/04, which should be clearly marked on a label on the seat. Remember that a car seat is usually only appropriate for a diagonal strap seat belt. You cannot fit a car seat with a lap seat belt, unless it has been specifically designed.

Incorrect fitting

The car seat should come with fitting instructions. Many stores also offer a free fitting service, though the results of a recent Which? survey make worrying reading for anxious parents. How to fit a Child car seat The consumer group visited 42 stores belonging to seven retailers and found that only four fitted the seats correctly. Worse still, several shops fitted the seats so badly that a child could be in “serious danger” in a crash, according to Which?

Don’t buy second hand

Prices obviously vary and it can work out expensive to buy car seats, especially if you have more than one child. But never ever buy a second hand car seat. You don’t necessarily know the history of the seat and it could have been weakened or compromised in a crash. Also, it might not comply with modern safety standards.

Exceptions to the car seat rule

Don’t be tempted to get into a car with a child that does not have the appropriate restraint. It might be convenient, but it’s not safe - and it’s probably against the law. Children aged three and under must always use a car seat, with only one exception: if they are travelling in a licensed mini cab or taxi that does not provide appropriate restraints, they can sit on the back seat. There’s a bit more flexibility for children of three and older. They must wear the adult seat belt in the back seat of a mini cab or taxi that does not have child seats. They can also travel in the back seat with an adult belt if two occupied child seats prevent the fitting of a third, or if the journey is unexpected, necessary and short – in other words, not the school run.

Child safety

In 2010, 14 children under the age of 11 were killed in cars and 206 were seriously injured. You don’t want your child to be one of the statistics, so buy, fit and use a car seat correctly at all times and make child safety your priority.

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