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Motoring: Are they sitting safely?

I KNOW what equipment is important in a car. For a start, the stereo must be a decent one, equipped with RDS traffic information. Alloy wheels are nice too. They don't weigh much, look pretty and ... Hold on. Shouldn't I be concerned about safety? ABS brakes, airbags and, more specifically, child safety? Probably. But like millions of other motorists, until I got a little extra passenger of my own, child car-seats were not at the top of my selfish and childless priorities.

As a motoring journalist, doing research into small seats that clutter up the interior was not a sexy story. A pity, because I could have saved myself a whole lot of trouble, embarrassment and distress by finding out which seat would be best. Instead, as a know-all motoring journalist I picked precisely the wrong seat for my car and my child.

I reasoned that as the legendary German manufacturer Recaro made wonderfully comfortable sporting seats for grown ups, their entry into the child-seat market with the "Start" would be ideal. It wasn't cheap at pounds 150 plus, but as it used the existing three-point seat belt and would even grow with my child from nine months to around 12 years it seemed worth it.

Olivia Ruppert disagreed. She quickly executed a Houdini-like manoeuvre and escaped. That done, despite previously being a back-seat angel, she changed into a whining little devil. I tackled Recaro at the 1998 Motorshow about this, but they simply suggested adjusting the seat and belt position. Eventually I got my money back and some advice from my local childcare shop. For less than half the price I got a seat which fitted properly, and kept Olivia secure and happy.

Buying the wrong child seat is a familiar scenario for John Lyus, who runs the In-Car Safety Centre in Milton Keynes. "It is important to remember that child seats are not magic devices: what makes the child seat safe is the adult who fits it. You have to try the seat out in your car first, with the child. Once they get to around 16 months they are looking for a way out and they can struggle like a trapped dog.

"I never recommend seats that use the existing car seat-belt because the best way to restrain a child is with a separate harness. If they can't see out of the car, that's a big problem because they will get restless and bored."

The real revelation is that child seats are not a universal fit. "The design of some seat belts on certain models, such as Peugeots and Volvos where the anchorage is located well forward on the bottom of the seat, is a problem. For adult safety that is fine, but where a child seat is fitted the anchorage won't pull it backward enough to restrain the seat in an impact. It is therefore vital to ring the child-seat manufacturer and ask them whether the model you are buying fits your car."

Lyus is a voice of great and rare expertise. Pop into any large chain of specialist childcare or motoring shops and prepare to be met by an almost total lack of product knowledge when it comes to actually using the seats. A survey by Halifax car insurance revealed that 42 per cent of parents admitted that they did not receive advice about fitting their children's car seat. Not only that, seven out of 10 car seats are not fitted correctly, or used properly.

The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) has produced a very useful booklet, which tells you how to choose, use and buy a child seat. Most importantly,follow the instructions. Fit the seat firmly; adjust the harnessso that only the thickness of two fingers can be inserted between the harness and the child's chest. John Lyus told me that as 30 per cent of accidents were side impacts, a central rear fitting was safer and it also meant that the child got an even better view out between the front seats. (As soon as I finished this conversation, I did the obvious thing and moved Olivia's seat.)

You might think that manufacturers would do more to make fitting a child seat easier and more idiot-proof. Well they have - sort of. Isofix was meant to be a European standard, whereby a seat would effectively "plug- in" to the rear seats. Volkswagen has launched this system for their latest range of cars, including the Lupo, Golf, Bora and Passat. It is a very clever and foolproof - provided you stick with VW group cars. Vauxhall has come up with its own version, Vauxhall Fix, which isn't compatible with VW's system. So you can't move any of these seats into a friend's vehicle for the school run. Another opportunity spurned to make child safety a priority.

The level of ignorance about child seats is nothing short of a national scandal. So it is up to us to do some research about the seat we are buying. Does it fit the car? Does the seat manufacturer say that it is appropriate for our car? Then follow the instructions and fit, or get it fitted properly.

John Lyus's advice is still ringing in my ears. "What makes the child seat safe is the adult who fits it."

James Ruppert

In-Car Safety Centre: 01908 220909; Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents: 0121-248 2000; Britax product helpline: 01264 386034