Car Safety With A Baby
We have all watched those Police! Camera! Action! shows and been appalled at the ignorance that some drivers have, both for the law, and the general safety of the child travelling in their car. But, can all of us make a genuine claim to knowing the full legal picture of transporting children in cars? Do we all sometimes take risks and cut corners because we are hurrying here and there? Accidents are the biggest cause of infant mortality in the UK, and the biggest proportion of those happen in cars (40%). Here's a rundown of the do's and don'ts when transporting children.
What's Legal; What's Not?
Children aged 0 to 3 must be in an appropriate baby or toddler car seat, secured with either a seat belt or the Isofix system. If they are in the front seat of the vehicle, the airbag must be disabled; airbags are designed for adults and the force of their inflation can be fatal for small children. Check your car's manual to find out how to switch off the air bag. In many cars there is a simple key turn mechanism for achieving this, and of course your local garage can always advise if you are unsure. A space of over 20cms between the rear of the chair and the dashboard is also recommended to further prevent injury. Children aged 3 through to 12 (or 135cms tall), must also use the correct booster seat with restraints, and beyond this age and height, like adult passengers, children must use seat belts at all times. As the driver, you are responsible for the safety of children in your vehicle until they are 14; above that age, every passenger is responsible for their own safety.
Car Seats; The Choice Explained
Any new parent can easily feel overwhelmed by the choice of car seats and child carriers on the market. However, the manufacturers have grouped seats into one of four categories that relate to age and weight to make things easier.
Group 0 (up to 10kg / 22lbs) and 0+(up to 13kg / 29lbs)
These two categories of seat are for new-born babies onward, and the simple difference is that the '0+' category is suitable for children past their first birthday, whereas the '0' is not. They are usually rear facing, and this provides more protection for your baby's developing back and head. For this reason, resist moving them on to the next size seat until absolutely necessary; wait until they are about to exceed the weight limit, or their feet or head are exposed at the bottom or top of the seat. It bears repeating that if a seat like this is used in the front seat of a vehicle, the passenger airbag must be disabled.
New to this group are the carrycot style flat-bed carriers for young babies. They won't necessarily be suitable for your child right up until they are large enough to travel in a forward facing seat, making this a more costly route (as you will need to 'fill the gap' with a rear facing seat). But, some paediatric professionals prefer this option for the youngest (and softest) developing skulls and spines. This kind of carrier is also thought not to restrict the chest and lung area as much as the rear-facing seats are believed to; some medical practitioners recommend your child being in a rear facing seat for no more than 30 minutes a day because of their concerns. Nevertheless, if we are focussing more narrowly on the issue of staying safe in an accident, generally, safety specialists prefer the rear-facing chair.
Group 1 (approximately 9-18kgs / 20-40lbs)
These are seats that will last until your child is roughly 4 years old. They are forward-facing with five point harnesses, and are usually attached to your car seat using the three point seat belt. Again, the airbag must be disabled if this seat is being used in the front seat, and as a general rule, children are always safer in the rear. Ensure that you make the five point harness as close fitting as you can without making the child uncomfortable. And again, only move your child on to the next seat category when his or her weight or height determines that a change is completely necessary.
Group 2-3 (approximately 15-36kg / 33-79lbs)
Historically there were two groups here where now, in practice, there is simply one category that covers your child from the age of 3 through till they are 12. Seats in this category are generally known as Booster Seats, and while some Booster Pads (the seat part without a back or headrest) are also suitable for three year olds, do check before buying.
Other Useful Kit
Looking beyond the issue of car seat choice, there are lots of products on the market that purport to make travelling with children easier, and in some cases, safer. Gadgets that sound an alarm if your child undoes the seatbelt, others that tighten the belt, mats that grip the chair more firmly on to your seats, and so on, and so on. Every parent needs to decide what makes them feel that they are travelling safely with their child.
The question to ask yourself, when your browsing the web, credit card in hand, is this: 'Will this item allow me to feel that my children are totally safe, minimise distractions to me as the driver, and therefore allow me to concentrate fully on the task of transporting us safely?'. Let's take an example. If your baby or toddler is seated in the rear of your car, do you find yourself turning round to look at what they are doing, or check they are comfortable while sleeping? If so, a mirror that attaches either below your rear view mirror, or to a back seat head rest (if your baby is facing rearwards), will help you maintain visual contact while keeping your eyes on the road. From this perspective, this product seems genuinely useful, and worth your hard-earned pennies.
Long Distance Travel Advice
There are lots of websites offering general advice about keeping safe while travelling long distances, but we thought we'd finish our look at car safety with a quick look at the best tips around for ensuring your long journey with your child is a safe one.
- Make sure your car is in good order before you set off. Check water, oil, tyre tread and pressure, lights and so forth.
- If you don't already have it, consider investing in breakdown cover. There are many modestly-priced policies to be had on the market, and the reassurance such cover gives you when you find yourself stuck by the side of the road, with tired, hungry children, can't be underestimated. Most breakdown service providers promise to prioritise women travelling alone or with young children, which is doubly reassuring to mums.
- Plan your journey carefully, and if possible, use satellite navigation to keep you on course. This minimises the need to refer to maps or written directions and helps you keep your eyes on the road.
- Choose your travelling time carefully. Travel at a time when you know your children are usually in good humour and / or are likely to sleep. For this reason, many parents prefer travelling through the evening, but consider whether tiredness would be a factor for you, especially if your child is of an age where night waking is an issue. Driving in the dark is definitely more tiring.
- Pack your car well before you travel, and consider whether any loose items could cause injury if you had to break suddenly. Minimise hazards of this nature wherever you can.
- Allow plenty of time for your journey, building in time for regular 'pit stops'. Your journey will be less stressful if you have all had a chance to stretch your legs, use the facilities, and eat and drink along the way.
- Consider your child's usual behaviour when in the car on short journeys, and decide which of their favourite toys and books are best brought with you to keep them occupied and calm as you travel. If they become fidgety, miserable and vocal in their complaining you're going to have a much tougher time reaching your destination!
How To Cope With Excitable Children
All children want to eat in the car, decide that now is the time to talk to you non-stop, try to wriggle out of their seat, and endeavour to wind their window down when you're doing seventy miles an hour on the motorway. These appear to be some universal truths of parenting, but at some point or other, our guess is that any one of these could cause risk or accident. The golden rule is, don't try to multi-task; it is always better to pull over in a safe place and deal with whatever your kids are (metaphorically) throwing at you, only setting off again once you've regained some order and calm. This is particularly true if you are feeling angry with something your child is doing, as strong emotion often impairs our judgement.
Be prepared, and go safely!