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Car seats and the law

What is the law on children’s car seats?

There are lots of rules when it comes to children and car seats. Our guide explains what you need to know

By Jo Thornhill

Published: 07 January 2021

Man putting children in car seats

Children's car seats: The law

Strict regulations apply in the UK regarding the fitting and use of child car seats.

Parents and carers will naturally want to comply with the rules to keep their children safe, but it’s also worth knowing that you can be fined heavily if you do not follow them.

The regulations concern the age, height and weight of the child, so if you have children in your care, they’re something you need to keep an eye on as the youngsters get older.

What are the rules for child car seats?

The UK’s main legal requirement is that children travelling in a car or a van must use a child seat until they are 12 years old, or until they reach 135cm/4ft 5in in height, whichever comes first. As and when they no longer have to use a child seat, they will of course need to wear a seat belt.

In some countries, including France and Germany, the requirement is that all children under 150cm/4ft 11in use a child seat, regardless of age. This is worth remembering if you are planning to drive abroad – you should check the local rules before you depart.

And, of course, there is nothing to stop you continuing to put your child in a car seat once they are past the legal thresholds.

The UK’s laws come from the European Union, including the fact that child seats used in this country must be EU-approved. That does not mean they must be manufactured within the EU, but they must meet EU specifications. So, a United States-approved seat, for example, would not be compliant.

Equally, other countries outside the EU have their own regulations and may not accept the use of EU-approved child seats.

To date, no changes to car seat laws have been announced as a result of the UK leaving the European Union.

What to look for when you buy a child seat

There have been cases where people have bought child car seats online which fall foul of the UK’s legal requirements on safety.

You should buy your child seat through a trusted retailer – perhaps one who is physically accessible and able to help you fit the seat or fit it on your behalf.

The seat should come with comprehensive fitting and usage instructions in English (possibly among other languages in a booklet).

An EU-approved seat should have a prominent orange label and one of these codes: ECE R44 for weight-based seats, and R129 for height-based seats (see below).

Never buy secondhand, as you cannot be sure the seat is structurally sound.

Avoid seats comprised entirely of fabric, as these do not provide the necessary protection.

Choosing a child seat

You can choose between two types of children’s car seat: height-based and weight-based.

Height-based seats

Height-based seats, known as ‘i-Size’ seats, must be rear-facing until the child is over 15 months. After that age, the child can use a forward-facing child car seat.

Only EU-approved height-based child car seats can be used in the UK. Look for a label showing a circle with a capital ‘E’ and the code ‘R129’.

Weight-based seats

A child’s weight determines which seat they can use and how they should be restrained.

Only EU-approved weight-based child car seats can be used in the UK. Look for a label showing a circle with a capital ‘E’ and the code ‘ECE R44’.

The rules for various weights are as follows:

  • Child’s weight 0kg to 10kg (group 0)

A lie-flat or lateral baby carrier, rear-facing baby carrier or rear-facing baby seat using a harness

  • Child’s weight 0kg to 13kg (group 1)

Rear-facing baby carrier or rear-facing baby seat using a harness

  • Child’s weight 9kg to 18kg (group 1)

Rear- or forward-facing baby seat using a harness or safety shield

  • Child’s weight 15kg to 25kg (group 2)

Rear- or forward-facing child car seat (high-backed booster seat or booster cushion) using a seat belt, harness or safety shield

  • Child’s weight 22kg to 36kg (group 3)

Rear- or forward-facing child car seat (high-backed booster seat or booster cushion) using a seat belt, harness or safety shield

The latest rules mean that manufacturers can now only make booster cushions for group 3 seats. But if you have a group 2 booster cushion you can carry on using it.

Fitting a child car seat

If you need to use a seat belt to secure the child car seat, it must have a diagonal strap. The only exceptions are if the seat is designed for use with a lap seat belt or if it works with ISOFIX anchor points.

Note also that you deactivate any front airbags before fitting a rear-facing baby seat in a front seat. Your car’s instruction manual or the manufacturer’s website should help you with this.

It is also against the law to fit a child seat in car seats that face sideways to the direction of travel.

Disabilities and medical conditions

Children with disabilities or medical conditions must use a child seat but if necessary they can use a disabled person’s seat belt or a restraint designed for their situation.

If a child is unable to use a restraint or seat belt because of their condition, they need an exemption certificate from the doctor.

When can a child travel without a car seat?

Under the law, a child aged three or older can travel in the back seat of a vehicle without a child car seat and without a seat belt if the vehicle doesn’t have one.

Children under three must always be in a child car seat unless:

  • the journey is unexpected and unavoidable (an emergency)
  • the journey is in a taxi or minicab
  • the journey is in a minibus, coach or van
  • there’s no room for another car seat

Unexpected journeys

A child aged three or older can use an adult seat belt if the journey is unexpected, necessary and over a short distance.

You cannot take children under three on an unexpected journey in a vehicle without the correct child car seat, unless the vehicle is a licensed taxi or minicab and the child travels on a rear seat without a seat belt.

The driver of the vehicle is responsible in such situations and must decide whether the journey in question meets the criteria above. But, as an example, collecting someone else’s child from school would not qualify as an unexpected emergency.

Taxis and minicabs

Children can travel without a child seat in a private hire vehicles if they travel on a rear seat and:

  • wear an adult seat belt if they’re three or older
  • travel without a seat belt if they’re under three

Minibuses and coaches

If you have a child in your care, it is up to you to provide a child seat if you want your child to have one while travelling in these vehicles – there is no obligation on the drivers, operators and owners of these vehicles to provide one.

  • in a minibus, if there is no child seat or adult seat belt, a child must travel in a rear seat behind the driver. A child aged three or over must use a child car seat if one is available, and an adult seat belt if there is no child seat
  • on a coach, a child can travel without a child seat or seat belt if none is available

No room for an additional seat

A child under three must be in a child car seat. If there is no room to fit a third child seat in the back or a car, the child under three must travel in the front with the correct child seat or not travel at all.

Children aged three or older can sit in the back of the car using an adult seat belt.

What are the penalties for breaking the law?

The fixed penalty for failing, as the driver of the vehicle, to ensure a child passenger is correctly restrained in an appropriate child seat or with a seat belt is £100, although this can rise to £500 if the case goes to court (the same figures apply if you as the driver do not wear a seat belt).

If you do not ensure your child passengers are properly restrained in compliance with the law and they are injured or killed in an accident, your car insurance provider may refuse to pay a claim arising out of that incident, or may not pay it in full.

If you fail to ensure the safety of someone else’s child and they are injured or killed, there is a possibility you might be pursued for damages through the courts.

Compare car insurance

The best way to get cheaper car insurance is to shop around for the best deal. You can compare quotes from different providers with MoneySuperMarket’s car insurance comparison tool – all you need to do is put in a few details about yourself, your vehicle and your driving history.

You’ll then be able to browse deals, seeing which policy features are included as standard and which features come as optional extras, how much the voluntary and compulsory excess amounts are, and the overall price you’d pay if you opted for a one-off yearly payment versus breaking the cost down into monthly repayments. It’s important to compare policy features as well as price to help you find the right level of car insurance cover.