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.
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).
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:
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
From 4 and up: Forward-facing child restraint, booster and adult’s seat
Mistakes to avoid: bin the booster cushion
When to transition?
- Sit with their back against the seat back;
- Bend their knees comfortably over the front of the seat cushion;
- Sit with the sash belt across their mid-shoulder;
- Sit with the lap belt across the top of their thighs; and
- Remain in this position for the whole trip.
How to fit a child car restraint
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.