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Should we keep children in seat restraints longer than the law states?

in Compensation Law by Genevieve Henderson on

One of the leading causes of child death and acquired disability in Australia are motor vehicle crashes. Research tells us that up to 80 children are killed and thousands more are injured on our roads each year. For that reason, children travelling in cars need to have special car seats, boosters or capsules with appropriate harnesses and seatbelts.

In fact, Australian parents and carers are legally required to have their children safely restrained when travelling in vehicles. Broadly speaking, all children up to the age of seven years are required to use a size-appropriate restraint. More specifically the requirements are:

  • From birth up to the age of six months to be restrained in a rearward facing child car restraint (e.g. infant capsule);
  • From six months up to the age of four years to be restrained in either a rearward or forward facing child car restraint with in-built harness;
  • From four years up to the age of seven years to be restrained in either a forward facing child car restraint or booster seat restrained by a correctly adjusted and fastened seat belt or child safety harness.
  • Children seven years and over can be restrained in an adult seat belt or in a booster seat.

Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who look forward to the day their child reaches the magical age of seven when they can legally take their child out of a safety seat restraint.

Some say their child has simply outgrown any available booster seat; others say they want to have the use of their backseat again without bulky restraints taking up all the room; and I’ve also heard parents say they’re keen for their little one to ‘grow up’ by sitting like an adult.

But are we, as parents, graduating our children out of restraints too early? One thing to remember is that the law sets out a minimum requirement only. That means there’s no reason why you can’t keep them in their restraints for longer, if they still fit that is.

Nearly one in five parents (18 per cent) surveyed by Slater and Gordon Lawyers said children should remain in child restraints until they are older than the law currently states, with mums (20 per cent) more likely to agree than dads (17 per cent).

These findings are backed by Kidsafe in partnership with Neuroscience Research Australia which developed some clear guidelines of best practice for parents who want to go above and beyond what the laws spell out. The Guideline’s recommendations explain that it’s not just about the child’s age, it’s also about the right fit for their body size.

“Parents and carers are recommended to exhaust all booster seat options before using a seatbelt alone for a child. Good seatbelt fit … is generally not achieved before a height of approximately 145-150cm or up to approximately 12 years of age.” [Best Practice Guidelines for the Safe Restraint of Children Travelling in Motor Vehicles]

The Guidelines state that children should always be seated in the most appropriate restraint for their size, not necessarily their age:

  • All babies should be in a rearward facing restraint.
  • Once they’ve outgrown the rearward facing restraint, they should be seated in a forward facing restraint with an inbuilt harness.
  • Once they’ve outgrown it, they should use a booster seat with lap-sash until they can fit appropriately into an adult seatbelt.

As a mother of two children – and as a motor vehicle accident lawyer who has seen the devastating impacts of car crashes – I decided not to graduate my own children into an adult seat with a belt until they fully out-grew their booster seat, which was when they were around 11 years of age.

While I’m not suggesting everyone needs to do exactly as I did, I believe parents could benefit by familiarising themselves with the Best Practice Guidelines, selecting an Australian-standard seat and following the manufacturer’s installation instructions.

Overwhelmingly, research tells us that any restraint is better than not using a restraint at all, so let’s take our time before removing those car seats and make sure we keep our most precious cargo safe.

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