The question, really, is not just about car seat laws, it’s whether babies should start facing forwards from the age of six months, and whether their tiny little necks, in particular, are up to it (specifically, up to the job of holding up their heads in the case of a sudden stop).
What does the rest of the world say?
The answer to that question very much relies on who you ask, and if you happen to be Swedish, your attitude will probably shock any Aussie parent you speak to.
In Sweden, you see there’s a strongly held belief that children should continue to sit facing backwards in a car – for safety reasons, not because they like to punish them – until they are four, or even six, years old, when they move into a booster seat, and face forward.
Things are also more prescriptive in the United States, where the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its guidelines, in 2018. Up until that point, its recommendation was that children should “remain in rear-facing car seats until the age of two, as they will be 75 per cent safer in the event of a collision compared to sitting in forward-facing car seats”.
The revised guidelines removed the age recommendation and instead state that children should remain in rear-facing seats for “as long as possible, until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by their car safety seat’s manufacturer.”
Sharalyn Crossfield, an Ottawa-based Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor, described this as fantastic news. “We know from statistics that kids aged zero to two have higher injury numbers, and that’s because they’re coming out of rear-facing too soon,” she said.
She also pointed to Sweden as an exemplar of child safety regulations. “Everyone does it there,” she said. “It’s not a law—they just all know it’s safer.”
Are people in Australia worried about the child restraint rules
Yes, there are people in Australia who feel strongly that we’re turning our children around too soon and when to change that, most notably the website which features some videos of crash-testing footage you probably won’t want to watch, which compares rear and forward-facing seats.
The site also states: “Rear-facing is safer than forward-facing for children under the age of four. This is largely due to the anatomy of a young child, combined with the forces placed upon their body in a crash.
“Young children have heavy heads which are large in proportion to their bodies. The head of an infant makes up 25 per cent of their body weight, compared to the head of an adult which only makes up 6 per cent of their body weight.
“In a motor vehicle collision, everything inside the vehicle is thrown violently forwards upon impact, including the heads of all forward-facing occupants. Their bodies are restrained by seat belts, but their heads are unrestrained. The harness straps on children’s car seats hold their bodies back, however their heavy heads are thrown forwards with tremendous force.
“When their heads are thrown forwards in a crash, all the force of the collision is placed upon the child’s immature, delicate spine. The soft bones in the neck of a young child are not developed enough to protect the spinal cord under such forces.”
What other rules are there about kids in child restraints?
Obviously the first thing to remember is that proper installation is vital. Far too many people guess at how to install a seat, or a harness, and rear-facing seats in particular can be tricky. Get yours checked, or better yet installed, by an expert.
Specifically, in NSW, it says children must kept in an approved restraint until they are four years old. “Children aged between 6 months and 4 years must be restrained in an approved rearward or forward-facing restraint. Once your child has outgrown their rearward-facing restraint (this usually happens from around 6 to 12 months of age) they can be moved into a forward-facing restraint.”
It’s an interesting point about what age they might grow out of the rear-facing, baby-capsule-style child seat, but that doesn’t mean you can’t get a rear-facing one that’s made for larger children.
The next stage, in Victoria, NSW, everywhere in Australia, is from four to seven years, when, as VicRoads puts it, “they must travel in a forward facing child restraint or a booster seat”.
Children aged 7 years and older can use a child restraint, or an adult seatbelt, “depending on their size”.
And size is they key. Just because your child is aged seven does not mean they are tall enough that an adult seatbelt will sit at the appropriate level across their body. Just put them in the seat without a booster and check – if the seatbelt is going across their necks, clearly they’re still too small and should be sitting higher, like in a proper booster seat.
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