A new law comes into force on 18 September 2006, which the government says could save up to 2,000 children per year from death or injury in road accidents.
Car seats used to be obligatory "if available", now there is no excuse
All children under the age of 12 will have to use some form of child car seat, unless they are taller than 135cm (4ft 5in).
This means many British families will be obliged to buy new car seats or booster cushions for their children.
They will also have to find ways of persuading children who have already stopped using them to get back into the habit.
Which children are affected?
All children under 135cm (4ft 5in) tall, unless they have passed their 12th birthday, must use a child seat appropriate for their weight.
Most children reach 135cm around the age of nine.
How do you find out what kind of seat is appropriate for your child?
Weigh your child and ask a shop assistant, or use the following guide:
- up to 13kg (2st 1lb) - a rear-facing baby seat
- 9kg to 18kg (1st 6lb - 2st 12lb) - a forward-facing child seat
- 15kg to 25kg (2st 5lb - 3st 13lb) - a booster seat
- 22kg (3st 6lb) or above - a booster cushion, or modern booster seat designed for larger children
A booster seat is like a booster cushion, except it has a back, and may have protection for a child's head in the case of a side impact.
The government suggests trying the seat before you buy it, to make sure it can be fixed properly in your car.
Which children are not affected?
A child over the age of 12 or more than 135cm tall, may use an adult seat belt. However, the Department for Transport recommends that children should continue using booster cushions or booster seats until they are 150cm (4ft 11in) tall.
What are the main changes from the existing law, when it comes to carrying children in cars?
Here are four of them:
- Up to now children aged between three and 11 have been obliged to use the appropriate seat or cushion "if available" - now they have to use it full stop, with only a few exemptions
- Children under 12 and less than 135cm tall may not travel in the front of a car without an appropriate seat or cushion, under any circumstances
- Children under three may not travel without an appropriate seat, whether they are in the front or the back, except in the rear of a taxi
- It becomes illegal to use a rear-facing baby seat in a front seat protected by an airbag
Are there any exceptions to these rules?
Yes. There are three cases where a child between three and 12 years old may travel in the back of a car using no more than an adult seat belt:
- short and occasional journeys made for reasons of "unexpected necessity" (so not on regular school runs, but you don't need to worry if you are picking up a friend's child because he or she has been unexpectedly detained at work)
- two other children are already using restraints in the back seat, leaving no room for a third. (However, it would often be safer for the child to travel, in the front of the car, using the appropriate seat or cushion.)
- in taxis
- Children under three may travel in the back of a taxi without a special seat or cushion, as mentioned above
- In old cars with no seat belts - children between three and 12 may travel in the back seat, though the Department for Transport points out that this is "not safe"
- Emergency vehicles, including ambulances and police cars, are exempt
What else does the new law change?
Here are three more changes:
- Seated bus and coach passengers over the age of 14 must use seat belts where fitted (rules regarding younger children travelling in buses and coaches will be put forward at a later date)
- From May 2008, child and baby seats must meet a standard known as UN ECE regulation 44.03, or the more recent standard 44.04 - this means they will be marked with an E and the numbers 44.03, or .03 or .04
- From May 2009, all passengers in any vehicle will have to use an appropriate restraint (baby seat, child seat, booster seat/cushion) or seat belt, where seat belts are fitted
Who will be held responsible for violations?
The driver is responsible for violations by passengers under the age of 14 (except in taxis with fixed partitions).
Police can impose a £30 fixed penalty, but the maximum fine is £500 if it goes to court.
Will lots of fines get handed out on 18 September?
Probably not. Road Safety Minister Stephen Ladyman says he expects police to "use common sense" and not to set up "major dragnets". Rather, he expects officers to appear at school gates from time to time to give parents advice.
He adds: "If they are not following that advice then they [the police] may have to take action."
Why are the rules changing?
The government says that surveys show three quarters of children are wearing adult seat belts before they are tall enough to do so safely. In other words, the belt could hurt their neck or their internal organs if the car stops suddenly. Or they could slide underneath it.
A child could be hurt by an adult seatbelt in a crash
The Department for Transport also points out that the existing regulations date from 1993, when rear seat belts were less common, and that the law needed to be brought up to date.
Furthermore, the government needs to bring UK laws into compliance with European Union legislation (Directive 2003/20/EC) on the use of seatbelts. It is four months late, as it should have done this in May.
What if a child refuses to use a child seat or cushion?
Mr Ladyman recognises that in some cases "there will be hell to pay". He suggests parents blame him.
Are the rules the same in all European countries?
No. For example, in the UK children above the age of three are allowed to travel in the front of a car if they use the appropriate seat or cushion and there is no danger of being hurt by the airbag. (Drivers should check with the car handbook.) In some other countries children are not allowed to travel in the front seat until they are 10 or 12.
The European directive on seatbelts sets minimum standards, which countries must observe. Some of them choose to aim higher.