Get up to speed on safety

 

Car seats can save lives but most are incorrectly fitted. How do you know what to do, asks CLAIRE O'CONNELL.

IF THERE was one thing you could do to vastly improve your child’s chance of making it out of a car crash alive, and if that one thing cost only €5 per month, you would do it, wouldn’t you?

Yet when it comes to restraining children safely in cars, as many as four out of every 10 Irish parents don’t put so much as a seatbelt on their children, let alone an appropriate car seat.

Meanwhile, up to 80 per cent of those who do use car seats and boosters for their kids do so incorrectly, according to the Road Safety Authority (RSA).

Seeing children bouncing around unrestrained or sitting on a parent’s lap in a travelling car “drains the blood” from RSA spokesman Brian Farrell.

“In a crash an unrestrained child will be thrown forward like a bowling ball and the force of the child hitting the window will be like a small elephant going out through the windscreen,” he says.

“The child could be thrown about in the inside of the car, injuring and killing others in the vehicle as well. And the child wouldn’t stand a chance.”

Drivers, who by law are responsible for the safe restraint of passengers under 17, sometimes don’t seem to realise it could happen to them, he adds.

“The greatest risk a child faces on a daily basis is travelling as a passenger in a car, whether it’s around the corner for a pint of milk or to the other end of the country,” says Farrell.

“And because it’s habitual, we do it every day, we tend to become immune to the risks. But children should never be in a position where they are responsible for their own safety. It’s up to us as parents and guardians to ensure they are safe.”

So how do parents do that? Cars, car seats and children come in all shapes and sizes, and the flood of options that face consumers can be downright bewildering.

The law doesn’t offer too much specific guidance – just that children need to be appropriately restrained in cars and goods vehicles. Meanwhile, all seats and boosters sold here have to comply with minimum safety standards set down by the EU.

But after that, it’s up to you. And that’s why some believe the law doesn’t go far enough.

“Legislation has inadvertently promoted the minimum requirement as opposed to promoting the [attitude of] ‘I want to give my child the best protection I can at whatever the cost, because I want to’,” says Simon Bellamy of the InCar Safety Centre in Belfast.

“Parents use booster seats because they are told to, they do not understand why they should use them. Perhaps we should stop pussy-footing around and explain the facts more clearly.”

The facts are that 70 children under the age of 14 lost their lives while passengers on Irish roads between 1997 and 2006, and more were seriously injured. But when used properly, infant seats can slash the risk of death or injury by 95 per cent if they are in a rearward-facing seat, or 60 per cent for forward facing.

How? As anyone whose heart has dropped watching crash-test footage using child-sized dummies knows that when a vehicle stops suddenly the child keeps going.

A properly fitted car seat or booster prevents the child from hurtling into the seat in front or out through the windscreen, explains Tony Kealy, who sells car seats at his Dublin and Cork shops.

But about eight out of 10 car seats here are not properly fitted – either because they are not compatible with the car, the child is the wrong height or weight for the seat or because the seat is not put in correctly.

“A car seat must be secure in the event of a collision so it is not going to move at all. But if you check most car seats in cars, they are nearly swimming around, and it means they are going to move on impact and increase the whiplash type of injury where the head is thrown forward and back,” says Kealy, noting that Isofix seats which clamp to the car’s chassis overcome most fitting issues.

Meanwhile, older children who have outgrown car seats still need boosters to position them correctly for seatbelts, he adds. “Seatbelts in cars are designed for adults who are 1.5m high, and the belt could seriously injure a child across the head and neck if they are below that,” he says.

And while the price of high- quality Isofix car seats and boosters might cause winces at the time, Kealy encourages parents to look at it another way – it costs about €5 per month to keep a child passenger safely restrained in a car from birth to about age 12. “You wouldn’t buy them a couple of comics for that,” he says.

The message is starting to get through to families with small babies, says Alf Nicholson, RCSI professor of paediatrics at Temple Street Hospital in Dublin. He previously worked on a prenatal awareness campaign at Our Lady of Lourdes in Drogheda that saw infant car seat use rise from a meagre 15 per cent in 1997 to almost universal usage within a few years.

And the knock-on effects were tangible, he notes. “We found that those children who went home in a car seat had a much lower rate of injuries related to car crashes – under the age of five.”

But he sees room for improvement with older children who use seat belts without the appropriate boosters to guide the belt over the shoulder and lap and away from areas like the tummy and neck.

“We have seen, in the past 18 months or so, at least three or four cases where children have come in with lap belt injuries: awful consequences where children have major intra-abdominal problems, spinal cord problems. “The seatbelt probably saved their lives but they were left with really bad injuries and it could have been prevented if they were in an appropriate position.”

The RSA’s Farrell agrees booster seats are often cast aside too early. “Most parents don’t see the need to put their children into a car seat once they get to maybe six years of age. And then they will let them use a seat belt too soon.

“If a seat belt is on a child and the diagonal is going across their neck and the lap part is across their abdomen, you don’t need me to spell out what could happen in a crash. I have had ambulance crew and medics on the phone to me in tears after attending crashes where children suffered horrific injuries as a result of wearing a seat belt that was not suitable for the child,” he says.

Overall he would like to see wider use of Isofix to ensure seats are properly fitted, and more rigorous safety testing of seats at higher speeds and side impacts. But most of all he wants to see Ireland get up to speed with the basics. “We have a long way to go in this country, and we need to make sure that no child travels unrestrained.”

What to look for in an infant car seat

With so many categories, brands and shapes of car seat on the market, choosing the right one to invest in can be confusing.

But there are some ground rules:

- Make sure you use an appropriate seat for your child’s weight.

- Check the seat is compatible with your car and can be used alongside any other car seats already there.

- On new seats look for an orange sticker bearing the EU safety standard code ECE R44.04, but be aware this just means the seat has passed the required tests and may not be the safest available.

- Look for good head support and “wings” to help protect against side impact.

- In a frontal collision children are up to five times safer in a rearward-facing seat, so keep them facing backwards as long as possible.

- Never use a rearward-facing seat in the front with an active airbag. It could kill or injure the child if it detonates.

- Isofix seats perform well in crash tests as they are securely fitted.

- Most people fit car seats incorrectly – get yours checked free at Tony Kealy’s Dublin and Cork shops (regardless of where you bought the seat) or at RSA Check it Fits roadshows.

See www.rsa.ie/childsafetyincars

Benefits of rearward thinking

When Laura Cooke’s son Daniel was three years and nine months old, she turned his child seat to face forward in the car. Pardon? He was facing backwards for three years and nine months?

“It’s something of a record – I don’t know of anyone else who kept their child rearward facing in the car for so long,” admits Cooke.

But that’s probably because she lives in Ireland and not Sweden, where children often face towards the back of the car until they are four – rearward facing is thought to be up to five times safer in a frontal crash because the child’s head is driven into the protective car seat when the car stops suddenly, rather than being flung forward to the limit of the spine.

So why did Cooke, a chartered physiotherapist, buck the Irish trend to face children forward earlier – sometimes even before their first birthday?

“The physio in me knows the dangers, knows the mechanism of injury,” she says to explain why she knew Daniel would be safer rearward facing for longer. “I don’t need to watch crash-test videos, I know what a whiplash injury is like and the effect that it has.”

Cooke would like to see a law in Ireland to keep children rearward facing until at least 12 months of age (and over 9kg), a greater range of rearward seats on the Irish market to cater for children over 13kg and more services to check that seats are fitted correctly.

You can buy rearward facing seats for older and heavier children from Tony Kealy’s in Dublin and Cork (see www.tonykealys.ie) or choose from a large selection at the In Car Safety Centre in Belfast – which ships within Ireland (www.incarsafetycentre.co.uk)