PRIVATE LIVES: Information Unlimited

All the Facts You Need to Avoid Heartache No 3: CHILDREN'S CAR SEATS
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Standards of child safety in cars are not what they should be. As many as 8,000 children under 10 are killed or injured in car accidents every year. The latest AA figures show that up to 30 per cent of child passengers are not restrained by a proper child safety seat, and, of those who are, as many as 70 per cent are wearing restraints that have been incorrectly fitted.

Road accidents are the highest single cause of accidental death for children below the age of 15. Studies done by the Child Accident Prevention Trust show that if children are suitably restrained in a car, their chances of survival are greatly increased. They are 90 per cent less likely to be killed and 75 per cent less likely to be seriously injured than they would be if they omitted to wear a seat belt.

The law

Since 1989 the law has insisted that children under the age of 14 be restrained in the rear seat of cars. The driver is responsible for ensuring that this rule is followed. Children below the age of four may travel in the front seat of a car only if they are belted into a child car seat. Children over the age of four are legally allowed to travel in the front only if they are using a seat belt; but they are safer travelling in the back - again, if wearing a seat belt.

Your child's weight is the most important factor in choosing an appropriate car seat. A very skinny four-year-old may be safer riding in a seat that has been designed for a toddler. Child car seats are tested and classified by weight, and the age reference is only a guide. Not all seats fit every car, and their effectiveness in an accident is severely reduced if they are poorly fitted.

All car seats must have a British Standard "BS" Kitemark or European Standard regulations 44 E mark.

Fitting the seat

Some seats are held in place by the adult seat belt, but have their own built-in harness that restrains the child. Others use the adult seat belt to hold both the seat and the child in place. Seats that have their own restraints are easier to manage, because when you arrive at your destination you can simply undo the seat restraint, rather than looping the adult belt right out of the chair.

When fitting the seat into the car, check that the seat belt is long enough to go over the child, and that the seat fits tightly into the recess of the back seat.

Rear-facing baby seats

Used from birth through to about 12 months, depending on the baby's weight, this type of car seat usually doubles as a baby-carrier, and is the safest type of restraint available for infants. It has its own harness, and the seat is held in place by the adult seat belt. When it is fitted in the front seat it also allows the driver to have eye contact with the baby. Babies of low birthweight may require extra support to prevent them rolling around. It's safest to carry your baby facing the rear for as long as possible.

Never use a rear-facing seat if the passenger seat has an emergency air- bag. And don't be tempted to turn a rear-facing baby seat around so that the baby faces the windscreen.

Child seats

The conventional child seat is forward-facing, and can be used until a child is about four years old. These are used with an adult seat belt and should not be used into the front seat of the car, particularly if you have a passenger air-bag fitted.

Booster seats and cushions

These are intended for children who are too large for a child car seat. By raising the child in the car seat, they position the adult seat belt correctly over the child's shoulder and pelvis.

What to look for in a seat

Harness adjusters should be positioned well away from the child's neck, for comfort.

An easily assembled, adjustable harness and buckle make loading and unloading a lot more speedy.

The harness buckle should be over the child's thighs and hips, not the stomach.

An adjustable head-pad.

Machine-washable covers.

Easy-to-follow instructions for fitting and adjustment.

Safety advice

The seat belt buckle should be well clear of the car seat frame, to avoid the possibility of its being jolted open.

Never buy a second-hand restraint or child-carrier.

Never use a seat or a carrier that has been in an accident. It maybe damaged or unsafe, even if it looks OK.

Adjust the seat's internal harness every time the child is put into the seat.

Watch out for metal catches or a metal frame that could heat up in the sun and burn the child.

Never leave a child alone in a car.

Useful numbers

RAC National Technical Centre: 0990 313131

AA: 0161 428 7671

Some garages offer advice and information as part of the Fit Safe Sit Safe scheme. Phone your local council's Road Safety Department for the names of participating garages in your area.

For more information send a stamped, addressed envelope to the Child Accident Prevention Trust, 4th Floor, Clerks Court, 18-20 Farringdon Lane, London EC1R 3HA.

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