By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
From next month, many children who thought they had grown out of sitting in child car seats will have to go back into them, as new rules come into force. And among parents there is widespread uncertainty about what the new laws mean.
From 18 September, children up to the age of 12, or up to the height of 135 cm, will have to use safety seats - which could mean that youngsters who have spent several years in adult seats will now need to return to using child seats.
Safety campaigners and motorists' organisations have all welcomed the changes - which the Department for Transport says will reduce the number of child casualties in traffic accidents by about 2,000 per year. But there are serious concerns that families are not receiving adequate information about what seats they will need and how the new regulations will operate. And failure to comply will mean court fines up to £500.
"We have been receiving an awful lot of calls from very confused motorists," says Sheila Rainger of the RAC Foundation. "These drivers know something is changing over child car seats - but beyond that they don't know where to get any information."
"We need some really simple-to-understand guidance for parents," she says.
CHILD SEAT REGULATIONS
Child seats compulsory until children reach 135 cm or the age of 12
Children up to age of 3 must be carried in appropriate seat
Exemption for over-3s in "unexpected necessity"
Exemption if there are three children but only room for two car seats
Fine of up to £500
The AA Motoring Trust also echoes this concern, saying they're also receiving anxious calls from people uncertain about the requirements. And retailers are reporting consumer confusion. Caroline Reynolds, who works in the nursery section at John Lewis, says customers ask: "Is this really true?"
A spokesman for the Department for Transport says the message has reached parents and that people will recognise that it's an important step in reducing injuries. And the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (Rospa) says that it's not about catching people out, but taking the next step in improving the safety of children in cars.
Rospa's road safety officer, Duncan Vernon, says almost 8,000 children are killed or injured in car accidents each year and the new rules should reduce that by a quarter. In particular, it will address the injuries caused by children who are not correctly restrained in the back seats - with a collision at 30mph throwing a child forward with a force that is 30 to 60 times its body weight.
While parents are usually careful about protecting babies and young toddlers, many children stop using car seats before they're physically large enough for an adult safety belt - which are designed for people who are 150 cm (about 5 feet) and taller.
There is an exemption if there is no room for three car seats
If there's a crash and a child less than this height is wearing an adult belt it can cause serious damage to the child's internal organs.
The idea of tightening the regulations is to make sure that children use safety seats longer - until they're tall enough for adult seat belts, with the legal threshold set at 135 cm (about 4 feet 5 inches) or 12 years of age.
This doesn't mean having to buy a child seat with back or head protection: the requirement is that children are raised to a sufficient height. This legal minimum would be covered by a the backless plastic seats - sometimes called "booster cushions" - which cost about £20. But there are also car seats, including side protection, which can cost more than £200.
There are exceptions to the new regulations. If there is a one-off "unexpected necessity", parents are allowed to waive the restrictions - but this will not apply to the school run. If families take turns in picking up each others' primary school children, they will now have to equip their car with enough appropriate car seats.
However, in another exception, many cars are not big enough to accommodate three seats across the back - so families in such cases will be able to travel with only two car seats.
A tougher question could be persuading image-conscious children who have stopped using car seats to get back into a "baby seat".
Birth to 9-12 months:
Rear-facing baby seat, up to 10- 13kgs. Group 0
9 months to 4 years: Forward-facing baby seat: 9-18kgs. Group 1
4 years to 6 years:
Booster seat, 15kgs up to 36kgs. Group 2
6 years to 12 years:
Booster seat or cushion, 22-36kgs. Group 3
Maeve, a seven-year-old from south London, says she wouldn't mind going back to a booster seat if other children of her age had to do the same - and that sitting higher would mean seeing "more than just the tops of trees".
But her older sister, Anna, aged nine, was less convinced and complained about being squashed and uncomfortable in a child seat. Pride could also be bruised.
"It would be embarrassing if you had to use one when none of your other friends did - people who are not tall enough might get teased about being in a baby seat," she said.
The Department for Transport has tips such as letting children give the seat a name. "He will be happier to sit on 'Henry' the seat if it's a name he has chosen." Perhaps.
Another major unresolved problem is the question of making sure that car seats are correctly fitted.
Fitting a seat
Anyone who has wrestled with a child seat will know how difficult they can be to install - and without taking it to be checked by an expert, there's no clear way of knowing if it is correctly secured.
Parents have less than a month to comply with the car seat regulations
"The number of misfitted seats is a large concern for us - we've got results from all kinds of surveys suggesting that it is up to 70% or 80%," says Rospa's Duncan Vernon.
This figure would suggest that many of the newly-bought car seats are going to end up being incorrectly installed - undermining the safety improvements.
But Mr Vernon says the big improvement on the horizon is a new international standard which makes car seats easier to secure, called International Standards Organisation FIX (Isofix).
This system, now being put into new cars, gives a much more rigid connection - and when it's connected correctly a green light shows.
But even though it's about child safety, it's still about cost - and Isofix systems are currently about twice the price of standard fittings. Mary Davis, who buys car seats for John Lewis, says that Isofix prices are going to come down.
But in the next few weeks, in the run up to the deadline for the new seat regulations, the RAC says the "serious problem" is the lack of public knowledge for families.
"Being realistic, parents are busy people. They want to do the best for their children, but it's important to make it as easy as possible to get that information," says Ms Rainger.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Until just now (12.41 on Friday 25.8.06) I knew nothing of this new law and the fact that it's coming into force in less than a month is frankly a bit of a shock!
I think the assertion by the DoT that parents have heard about this is typical government nonsense as this is the first I've seen or heard about these changes to child seats. I have only found this article by chance.
Perhaps the DoT should find a proper way to inform motorists of changes, especially such important ones.
Richard Groves, Muswell Hill
I went to our local Police Station recently, and they knew nothing about the new law. An e-mail to the Police web sites generated two answers, the first that once the child was 135cm no seat was needed, and the second stated that even if the height was reached, a seat would still be needed till the age of 12. There was no definate answer to the legality of the seatbelt adjusters sold at many stores though.
Anthony Mannings, Bristol
This has been all over the radio for weeks, I can't understand how people are not aware. I personally think it is a good idea, I think also children should not be allowed to sit in the front of a car until the age of 15. The sooner that is added the better.
Oh no, my 8 year old daughter was right and I ignored her advice! She told me about this a few months ago and I told her it was rubbish! This is the first 'official' information I have seen on this. I have no problem with safety for my child, so will happily comply, but the message could have been delivered in a far better organised fashion. Got to agree with Dean in Bern though. If this is a safety issue, and is enshrined in the law, then the compulsion should be on the manufacturers to include proper safty seats as part of the standard vehicle build, rather than being sold as expensive options afterwards. £20 cushions are just not good enough in an accident, you need the proper safety equipment fitted at the time of manufacture.
£20 for a booster seat or serious damage to your childs internal organs if you are involved in a crash? Sounds like common sense to me. I do think the information could have been given to us in a less surprising manner! More time should be given and I hope shops are stocking up with booster seats during this mad rush!
Glad they put in the age limit of 12 or my mother age 80 plus would need a fitted seat. She's held a drivng licence since WW2.
Marion Fielding, Reading
I am in complete support of children using booster seat or car seats but what implications will this have now for parents or school staff transporting children in their own cars? Will children bring their own seats on such occasions - if they forget their seat what will happen?! Will schools be expected to provide sufficient seats for children to be transported?
You're the parent, if it reduces risk for your child, just do it.
This entire issue begs the question of why the car industry has not addressed this matter. They have been selling "family" cars for decades and yet have to make a seat restraint system that is fit for children for these "family" cars. That is the reason why aftermarket seats cost so much.
E Azicate, Manchester
If you need a booster cushion because you are shorter than 135cm, why does the risk disapear when you reach twelve years of age?
Chris Daws, Lincoln
The thing that does worry me is: how are low-income, large families are going to be able to afford all these new seats? I think that the government should be giving out means-tested grants, if they're not already. These car seats cost a bomb!
The only reason I knew about this was because one of my friends is a child-minder. At least someone out there knows, but surely a campaign at schools would have got the message across - how about all those parents out there without internet access who will be completely in the dark!?
I don't have a problem with the principle and have always provided my children with suitable seats, boosters and restraints, but this law is being instroduced with virtually no publicity. But really the vehicle manufacturers should have been addressing years this ago with integrated adjustable seat designs and the law should then take into account that a booster seat would not be necessary if such a seat was used.
Russell O'Brien, Nottingham
Get real. Children die needlessly in car accidents every year. This will save them. It's not so difficult. Treat your child like an adult. Explain that there is a new law to save children's lives which means that all children must use a child seat. Avoid the use of the word "baby" when referring to the seat. Explain that everyone will have to use one, just like their parents have to. If you don't treat children like babies they generally don't act like them. Secondly booster seats cost £20. That's less than four packets of cigarettes or two tickets to the cinema. Isn't it worth buying a couple of extra seats to have around if you expect to be ferrying children about?
Pip Smith, London
A good start would be to get any occupier in a car to wear a seat belt. Round here about 25% don't. I see lots of very young kids totally unsecured in cars. Oh, and just how is this law going to be enforced? Will it be like the mobile phone law - completely un-enforced?
Where do the car manufacturers come in here? Can't they be held to account for better child (small passenger safety)? Isofix should have been brought in with airbags and ABS and the seat manufacturers should be forced comply with that.
Dean Heatley, Bern, Switzerland
I have never seen the police warn people for not putting children in a seat belt , so this new law will probably be ignored too!
Michael Ferguson, Peterborough
Wouldn't it have been a good idea for the the DoT, ROSPA or whoever to have sent flyers to all primary schools before the summer break so all children would have taken a leaflet home to inform their parents if this new legistlation? Mind you, I see enough families where I live with children unrestrained in the back and sitting on adults lap - so I guess they won't be buying booster seats either!
The DoT's official is suggesting that the way to get kids as old as twelve to accept sitting in (what they see as) baby-seats is to let them call it Henry. Yeah, that'll help them get over the fact that they feel like they're being treated like 3-year-olds...
Geoff Winkless, Leicester
What are the rules for those people who don't have kids of their own but occasionally take nephews, nieces etc. to the cinema or for a day out etc. Do we all have to buy new child seats just in case this happens, or do we say no to the kids and let them think we are miserable?
My wife heard of this on the radio some time ago and laughingly suggested that she should get a booster seat as at a statuesque 5ft tall she falls below the defined hight at which simply wearing a seatbelt is acceptable. Just imagine how embarrassed she would be as an adult never mind a pre-teen having to sit on a booster seat, fortunately the law does not apply to over 12s so in this instance her blushes will be spared. It does beg the question though as to why seatbelts are not made more adjustable for height as opposed to the girth of the person wearing it?
This law, or a similar one, has been in place for many years in Germany. It all works very easily and statistics show there are far fewer fatalities and injuries to children. People will soon get used to it, as they have with safety belts. Perhaps Jimmy Saville could be persuaded to take an interest. Nobody who heard it at the time has ever forgotten: "Clunk, click - every trip!"
Iain Galbraith, Wiesbaden, Germany
So sitting on "Henry" is going to give you more playground cred if you're being teased already? Imagine the nine-year old now. "I'm not sitting on a booster seat, I'm sitting on 'Henry'."
We have a cat called Henry. I fear for his life.
Richard Ashworth, Batley
Our cat is called Spike. You wouldn't want to sit on him.
Andrew, West Croydon
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