Car Advice

Part 1: Child car seats – rear-facing vs forward-facing and age appropriate restraints

Choosing child car seats can be a minefield of misinformation. This article, the first in a series, looks at rear-facing Vs forward-facing and age appropriate child car restraints.

WHEN IT COMES to researching and choosing child seats for your kids, well, the times have well and truly changed. But it’s not just the seats that have changed, it’s also the accepted thinking on things like when you should transition from a rear-facing seat to a forward-facing seat.

But, before we get into that, let’s take a quick walk through the history of child seats.

The first ‘child seats’ were introduced in the 1940s, although these were basic seats designed more to help children see out the window than provide protection to children. Don’t be too shocked, though, vehicle safety was still in its infancy at this time and it wasn’t until 1959 that the three-point seatbelt began being fitted to cars. And what type of car was that? A Volvo.

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Then, in 1962, two blokes independently of each other managed to come up with two very different styles of child seat, one being the rear-facing child seat with Y-style harness (three-point) set-up (Jean Ames) and the other a forward-facing seat that featured a metal frame with in-built harness (Len Rivkin).

Len Rivkin child car seat
Len Rivkin child car seat

The importance of age-appropriate child car seats

These days it’s a legal requirement that children under the age of 11 travel in an age-appropriate child seat or booster, but moving children from seat to the seat just because the law says they’re able to be moved isn’t necessarily the sensible thing to do. If your child is bigger or smaller then it might make more sense to either keep them in the existing seat if they still fit, or if they’ve outgrown their current seat then, of course, move them up into the next one. But, at the end of the day the focus should be on the child and ensuring they are sitting in the right seat for their size.

Research by Neuroscience Australia (NeuRA), which co-developed the National Guidelines for the Safe Restraint of Children Travelling in Motor Vehicles the guidelines suggests “over half of Australian children are not sitting in the right seat for their size. We found this was most common in children aged between four and eight, who are prematurely moved into restraints designed for older children and adults. We have also found that over half of parents are not using the restraints correctly, for example not tightening or untwisting the harness, not adjusting it properly as the child grows, or not having it installed properly in the car.

“Incorrect or inappropriate use increases the risk of injury to the child in a crash by up to seven times,” NeuRA says.

why REAR-facing is better?

In Scandinavia it’s established practice that children travel in rear-facing child seats until the age of five, so, why in Australia is there a rush to transition children out of rear-facing child seats before 12 months of age? Especially when Australian guidelines suggest “children should use rear facing child restraints for as long as they fit in them”… Indeed, in what it describes as a departure from its age-old position statement, the American Academy of Paediatrics now recommends children up to two-years of age travel in an age-appropriate rear-facing child seat. Here’s its policy statement.

So, why exactly is rear-facing better?  Unlike an adult a child’s head makes up around 25% of its body weight; in an adult this would equate to a head weighing around 20kg. More than this, young children’s bones are still forming and mainly consist of cartilage and so the forces exerted on a child’s body during a collision can cause serious injury and death and, if the child has been moved to a forward-facing child restraint too soon, potentially internal decapitation as both the spine and neck in an infant are still forming and prone to stretching and then rupturing (the spine can not stretch more than a quarter of an inch before it snaps). Autopsies on children who’ve been killed in a car crash have revealed the spinal chord stretch up to two inches while the spine snapped after stretching just a quarter of an inch casing internal decapitation.

In crash testing (frontal impact crash testing is performed at 64km/h in Europe where this data was recorded), it’s been shown that the force exerted on the neck of a child in a forward-facing child restraint at 12 months of age is between 300-320kg (or around 70G) while the force exerted on the same 12-month old’s neck in a rear-facing child seat would be around 50kg.

The ‘key word’ when talking about collisions and child car restraints is ‘ride down’, although it applies as much to adults as it does to children involved in a collision. Ride down is the term used to describe the crushing and deformation of a vehicle in a collision with the net effect of reducing transferred force to the occupants. Risk of injury increases as the speed of the impact increases and the more abruptly at which occupants come to a stop. To take advantage of the vehicle’s ability to ride down a collision, occupants (including child car restraints) must be securely belted to the vehicle, or else as the vehicle slows down because of its crumple zones, the occupants won’t, and will travel at the speed the vehicle was travelling at the time of impact… Watch the below video, it’s 24 minutes long, for a better explanation:

It’s not just children who are better off rear-facing when travelling in vehicles. Adults would be too, and that also goes for other transport like aeroplanes. So why do we all face forwards? Because we prefer to travel face-forwards. Military aircraft typically have rear-facing seats, and research carried out shows that in a crash everyone is better off rear-facing. There’s even been an actual crash – in 1958, the Manchester United soccer team was involved in an air crash during takeoff. The passengers in rear-facing seats survived, the ones facing forwards did not.

Safety is always traded off with convenience, because if it wasn’t we’d all be rear-facing and using six-point racing harnesses. Making your own safety tradeoffs is fine for adults, but in the case of children they can’t make their own decisions so it is up to the parents to make the car as safe as possible.

The guidelines on child restraints are:

From birth

Children should use rear facing child restraints for as long as they fit in them. For older restraints which do not have shoulder height markers, the sign of the child having outgrown the restraint is when the child’s shoulders are above the top shoulder harness slot for rear-facing use. Or when their eyes are inline with the top of the shell. Some seats are weight based and the child must be transitioned once that weight has been reached.

And the reason it’s important that children should sit in a rear-facing restraint until two-years of age (and beyond) is that, “Rear facing restraints are highly effective in preventing injuries if used correctly, because they fully support the child’s head and neck in the event of a crash. This is important as infants have relatively large heads and weak necks which put them at particularly high risk of serious injuries if the head and neck are not supported.

“Rearward facing restraints support the child’s head and neck in severe frontal crashes better than forward-facing restraints.”

And here’s a video demonstration to show the above statement in action:

until the age of 4

If your child has outgrown their rear-facing child restraint then they should be swapped into a forward-facing child restraint with an in-built six-point harness. If you’ve ever watched a motor race you’ll have seen the seats and harness racing drivers use; the forward-facing restraint with in-built six-point harness is a lot like that.
 
While the law allows for children four-years and older to transition out of a forward-facing child restraint and into a booster seat, the recommendation from pediatric bodies is that so long as the child still fits into the restraint comfortably then they should remain in it until they grow out of it as it provides more protection during a collision than a booster seat using just a seatbelt.

From 4 and up: Forward-facing child restraint, booster and adult’s seat

My son was in the 98th percentile for height and so was just almost literally busting out of his forward-facing child-restraint by the age of four – he’s long in the legs and body/torso. However, his sister, who is still quite tall for her age has turned four and still has room to move in the forward-facing child restraint and so she’ll remain in it until she turns five. With a Type G child restraint now available, I’ll be purchasing one of those to keep my daughter in a restraint with an inbuilt harness for as long as possible. And I’d encourage all parents to leave their child in a child restraint suitable for their age and size for as long as possible before moving them up to the next seat; a forward-facing child restraint will always provide more protection than a booster seat.
 
Update: Child car restraints are being updated all the time and it’s been brought to my attention that there are currently seats on the market that would have likely accommodated my bean-pole of a child beyond four. These are a Type G seat, as I understand. Definitely look at what your child restraint is capable of doing and, if it means buying a new restraint rather than jumping straight to a booster as I did, then spend the money. Your child will always be safer in a restraint than either a booster or going too soon to an adult’s seat.
 
That said, once your child has outgrown their forward-facing child restraint they’re able to transition to a booster seat. The thing that gets me is that many parents (and I see this everyday at my local school) seem to think that once their child goes to primary school they can legally use an adult’s seat or, worse still, be put into the front passenger seat with just a seatbelt. They can’t, or at least they shouldn’t. My son (who is seven-years old, the age the law says you can transition to an adult’s seat) is a good head taller than the rest of the kids in his class and he still sits in a booster seat while many of his friends travel in an adult’s seat; this really is an accident waiting to happen.
 
And the reason for this is a matter of size. Meaning, if the child isn’t yet tall enough to correctly sit in an adult’s sized seat then in the event of a collision the child isn’t properly restrained and is liable to injure themselves and others in the car. The child could submarine under the seatbelt in a crash, meaning they would slide under and out of the seatbelt and end up with the seatbelt potentially catching under their chin and snapping their neck. National Child Restraint Legislation says: “Children aged from seven years old but under 16 years old who are too small (it’s accepted than 145cm is the minimum height to use an adult’s seat and seatbelt) to be restrained by a seatbelt properly adjusted and fastened are strongly recommended to use an approved booster seat.”

Mistakes to avoid: bin the booster cushion

Don’t get me started on booster cushions. These seats provide no side protection at all in the event of a collision and, if you own one, should be immediately removed from your car and chopped into a million pieces. Then, once you’ve done that go out and buy an approved high-back booster seat.
 
“Children in booster seats must be restrained by a suitable lap and sash type approved seatbelt that is properly adjusted and fastened, or by a suitable approved child safety harness that is properly adjusted and fastened,” says the National Child Restraint Legislation.

When to transition?

The rule of thumb in transitioning your child from one child restraint to the next is either when their shoulders pass the shoulder marks either printed or stitched onto the seat. And, if you don’t have markings on your seat, then the next best indicator is to move your child into the next seat up once their shoulders have grown past the upper most shoulder strap slots.
 
The following five-step checklist, (from childcarseats.com.au) is perfect for determining if your child is ready to transition from a booster seat to an adults seat. The child should be able to:
  1. Sit with their back against the seat back;
  2. Bend their knees comfortably over the front of the seat cushion;
  3. Sit with the sash belt across their mid-shoulder;
  4. Sit with the lap belt across the top of their thighs; and
  5. Remain in this position for the whole trip.

How to fit a child car restraint

When it comes to fitting your child seat, always consult the manufacturers instructions. And, if you’ve lost them, then look them up on the Internet via your seat’s Model name and number.
 
The important thing to remember when fitting your child’s car restraint is that the straps holding the child in place should be a comfortable but firm fit with no slack in the harness. Make sure you double-check that none of the straps on the harness are twisted before buckling in your child and that none of the straps or belts securing the child restraint to the car’s seat are either twisted or caught.
 
With a booster seat, you’ll want to make sure that the seatbelt crosses your child’s shoulder and that the lap sash part of the belt sits low across the pelvis. If in doubt, look up your nearest authorised restraint fitting service.

ResourceS: Rear-facing seats 0-4 years

The following is a list of the car seats currently available in Australia for longer rear-facing – reproduced from Rear-Facing Down Under. This website is an excellent resource.

“Current at February 2016:
Type A4 Seats, rear-facing to approximately 2-3 years of age (until middle shoulder height marker):
Britax Platinum SICT. ISOFIX Compatible & seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker;
Britax Millennia SICT. ISOFIX Compatible & seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker;
Britax Slimm-Line AHR. ISOFIX Compatible & seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker;
InfaSecure Kompressor 4 Treo. ISOFIX Compatible & seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker;
InfaSecure Quattro.  Seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker;
InfaSecure Grandeur.  Seat belt install. 0-8 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker; and
Babylove Ezy Switch EP.  Seat belt install. 0-4 years convertible car seat. 39cm seated torso rear-facing shoulder height marker.
 

Coming soon – PART 2: Exploring ISOFIX and other restraint methods 

 


Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober

Isaac Bober was born in the shadow of Mount Panorama in Bathurst and, so, it was inevitable he’d fall into work as a motoring writer. He began his motoring career in 2000 reviewing commercial vehicles, before becoming editor of Caravan & Motorhome magazine. He then moved to MOTOR Magazine before going freelance and contributing to Overlander 4WD, 4×4 Australia, TopGear Australia, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Australian, CARSguide, and many more.