THE 10 MOST DANGEROUS CAR SEAT ERRORS
In South Africa, the benefits of car seats for infants and toddlers is slowly becoming more widely known and accepted. What is far less understood is the fact that many children, even in the safest car seats available, are still in danger of death or serious injury if the car seat is incorrectly used. In this blog we discuss 10 tips to ensure your child’s safety on the road.
10 Car SEAT SAFETY TIPS
- The car seat should be suitable for your child’s age weight and height.
- Make sure the car seat is installed correctly
- Make sure the car seat's straps are not too loose or off your child's shoulders
- Make sure the straps are at the right height
- The car seat straps should not be twisted
- Children should not be seated on a front seat
- Do not use puffy clothing
- Lookout for buckle crunch
- Avoid untested after market car seat accessories
- Using an expired or second hand car seat
In SA we have a shockingly high percentage of children who are not suitably restrained in car seats or even with a seatbelt. Buying a car seat is the first step towards protecting your child in the event of a crash. What many parents are unaware of is how to use it correctly in order for it to perform optimally in a crash.
We often hear of children being ejected from their car seats or the car seat being found on the road following a crash. Any one of the following errors can cause a car seat to fail in a crash. Your manual will stipulate exactly how to use your car seat properly.
1. THE CAR SEAT SHOULD BE A GOOD FIT FOR YOUR CHILD'S AGE, WEIGHT AND HEIGHT
Children should be in the correct car seat for their age, weight and height. It is a common error that parents move their children to the next stage car seat too soon. A car seat should be used to its maximum weight or height limit; whichever comes first. Don’t be in a rush to move to the next stage as a step up in a car seat stage is a step down in safety.
An infant should be in a rear facing infant car seat until they reach the maximum weight or height limit of their car seat. For most, this is 13kg/approximately 75cm (around 12-18 months) depending on the model and your baby’s growth. Good infant seats cater to the needs of a newborn best, in that they should recline sufficiently (45 degrees), have good padding to position and support them and a harnesses that can secure them properly.
Toddlers should ideally be rear facing for as long as their convertible car seat allows. Rear facing has been proven to be much safer than forward facing. There are now several car seats in South Africa that can rear face to 18kg (approximately 4 years) and 2 that can rear face to 25kg (approximately 5 years). Be sure to check the rear facing weight/height limits of your model and do not exceed them.
After the toddler seat is outgrown, usually at 18kg or approximately 105cm, older children are best protected in high back boosters. Booster cushions (also known as backless boosters) offer no head/side impact protection, and are not safe to use for children under 22kg/125cm.
The minimum recommended age to move to a booster is 4 years. A booster is a belt-positioning device that positions a seatbelt, designed for an adult, safely across a child’s body. Boosters position the seatbelt across the torso away from the neck, and over the hips away from the abdomen. A child shorter than 1.5m can sustain severe or even fatal injuries using a seatbelt alone, as the seatbelt could cut into the abdomen and/or sever the spinal cord.
5 STEP TEST
Children can only safely travel without a booster when they meet the 5 Step Test:
2. MAKE SURE THE SEAT IS CORRECTLY INSTALLED
It is vital that a car seat be installed exactly as per the manual. No adjustments or alterations are permitted, as this may alter its performance in a crash. Car seats that install with isofix have indicators that turn green when the seat is correctly installed. All belted car seats have guides that show where the seat belt should be routed to secure the seat. For rear facing installation these guides are blue, and for forward facing they are red. You can remember this by “blue is for babies and red is for rascals”.
Most toddler seats also have a lock-off clip that the seat belt should be locked into. If the seat belt is incorrectly routed or not locked, the car seat won't be safe.
Please also check your manual to see if your car seat requires a top tether anchor. A tether secures the top of the car seat and reduces an additional 4-6 inches of movement during a crash. This means that the child is less likely to hit into the back of the seat in front of them (Klinich 2012).
For car seats that have a top tether, a strap with a hook will be found near the headrest of the car seat at the back. This must be used according to the manual, by attaching it to the top tether anchor of your vehicle. Not all vehicles have these anchors. If your car seat requires anchors but your car does not have them, the car seat is not compatible with your car.
It is also important to note that most car seats must be installed with either seatbelt OR isofix, not both. Parents often think they are providing additional safety by using both, but the car seat was not designed or crash tested using both. The only car seat sold in SA that I am aware of that must be installed with isofix and seatbelt simultaneously, as well as top tether anchor, is the Joie Bold.
3. Make sure the CAR seat's straps are not too loose
If the straps are too loose or off your child’s shoulders, it places them in an extremely dangerous position if they were to be involved in a crash. They could be thrown forward and hit into the front seat, or they could be ejected from their car seat. Below we see what happens to the crash test dummy with a loose harness:
Video used with permission from University of Michigan
This shocking video demonstrates what happens in a crash at 30mph (48kph) when the harness in not over the shoulders as they should be:
Video used with permission from 5 Point Plus
It is very important to pull the slack out of the 5-point harness from the hips before pulling the tail of the harness to tighten it at the shoulders. Too much slack at the hips can cause the harness to be too loose. The straps should be tight enough so that you cannot put more than 1 finger between the collarbone and the harness. We call this the “ One Finger Salute”. Here’s how to tighten and check the harness (our European seats do not and must not use chest clips):
4. THE STRAPS MUST BE AT THE CORRECT Height
Your car seat manual will show you how to adjust the harness to the correct height. Some car seats require you to re-thread the harness, and others have a handle that adjusts the headrest and straps simultaneously.
For rear facing car seats, the harness straps should come from at or just below shoulder level (within an inch). Putting the harnesses too high for a rear-facing car seat causes the child’s body to slide upwards against the car seat in a crash.
The more distance the child moves exponentially amplifies the forces on the child’s body, particularly the head and chest. Straps that are too low can cause the harness to slip off the shoulders.
For forward-facing car seats, the harness straps should come from at or above shoulder level (within an inch). Crash forces will cause a forward facing child’s body to be thrown forward. Correctly positioned straps most effectively decrease the amount of distance the child will travel when propelled forward and reduce the forces on the child’s spine and shoulders.
5. StRAPS MUST NOT BE TWISTED
Twisted straps place concentrated crash forces over a much smaller surface area of the child's body, which increases the risk of injury. This can cause the straps to cut into the child's body. Here’s a clever trick to untwist the straps
6. children on the front seat
Airbags offer life saving technology, but they are designed to protect adults. In a frontal accident, airbags explode at about 321km per hour. This instantaneous explosion, designed for the size and bones of an average adult wearing a seat belt, can be deadly for a child, even one wearing a seat belt. Children are much safer in the back seat until age 13.
Rear facing car seats are legal and allowed to be used on the front passenger seat, but only if there is no active frontal airbag.
For forward facing car seats or boosters, you will need to check your vehicle and car seat manuals to see if and how it is permitted. Not all cars allow a car seat to be installed in front. Some require the airbag to remain on but for the vehicle seat to be pushed away from the dashboard. Other manuals indicate that the airbag must be deactivated.
7. DO NOT USE puffy clothes
A puffy coat or even very frilly tutus or dresses can interfere with the way the harness sits on your childcan. They can add up to 4 inches of slack into a car seat harness. Although you may tighten the harness and it may feel like it feels snug on the child’s body, the coat would compress in a crash and the straps would be too loose to restrain the child. 4 inches significantly increases the risk of injury; particularly head injury.
4 layers of tight fitting and thin clothing are allowed.
Photo credit: The car seat lady
8. look out for buckle crunch
Buckle crunch is a common but often unidentified safety problem. Buckle crunch occurs when the plastic casing of the seat belt buckle is bent on or over the beltpath of the child seat. This is unsafe and the car seat is considered incompatible with your car.
This often happens in cars with the female buckle on a long stalk, or with car seats or bases that have low belt paths. When the plastic casing of the seat belt buckle is bent on or over the car seat, it would put tremendous pressure over the buckle in a crash and could cause the casing to break.
9. Avoid untested aftermarket accessories
Any accessory such as shoulder padding, infant inserts, back seat protectors, chest clips, head straps and swaddles that are not made and crash tested by your manufacturer, are not recommended or safe to use.
Although they may seem harmless, untested aftermarket accessories can alter the performance of your car seat in a crash and reduce it’s effectiveness. Only use accessories that are approved by your manufacturer. Read here how these seemingly benign strap covers caused a baby to be ejected from the car seat in a crash.
10. AVOID USING AN EXPIRED OR SECOND HAND CAR SEAt
It is recommended that child car seats should not be used for more than 6-10 years as the materials of a car seat will begin to degrade from wear and tear and weather conditions. An old car seat may not perform as it should do in a collision.
Our European car seats do not have expiry dates, but each manufacturer will have a recommended lifespan for each model. Many manufacturers recommend that a child car seat be replaced after 5 years, because child car seats are constantly being improved and upgraded.
Buying second hand is not recommended as you cannot be certain of its history and safety unless you know and trust the seller. A car seat that’s safety has been compromised may not show obvious damage, but it may not protect your baby sufficiently if it were to be involved in a crash. For more information, read our article on how to buy second hand car seats safely here.
Using and installing your car seat correctly and exactly as stipulated by your manual, will ensure optimum protection for your child. Many accidents happen close to home, where we relax as we are in familiar territory. So be sure to buckle your child up every time you travel, no matter how short the journey!