Car safety tips for little passengers

Reading time: 6 min

International Child Passenger Safety Week occurs every September, though every country selects different dates. The intention of Child Passenger Safety Week is to draw attention to the critical importance of safe car seat use. Here, we share some crucial facts to help you keep your little passenger as safe as possible. You can support Child Passenger Safety Week by sharing this article and engaging in car seat conversations online.

Child passenger safety law

In South Africa, it is illegal to travel in a car with a child under the age of three years unless they are strapped into an approved child safety seat. The driver of a vehicle is legally responsible for any child under the age of 14 not using a car seatbelt or appropriate child seat in their vehicle. Children under 13 years of age shouldn’t sit in the front passenger seat. Their bodies are not strong enough to withstand the forces of a crash in that seat, and an airbag activating can seriously damage a developing body.

There is no such thing as your child being safe without a restraint because you are going “just around the corner”. The majority of car crashes happen close to home – one study shows 52% within 8km and 77% within 25km. We in Africa have only 2% of the world’s cars, but 20% of the world’s road deaths (ITF Summit 2018). We lose five South African children a day on our roads and it is completely preventable.

Child passenger safety best practice

The law and what is safest do not line up… EVERY child from birth until roughly 12 years of age needs a car seat or booster seat to survive a crash. Car seats reduce the risk of your child dying by up to 71% and needing hospitalisation by 69%.

You will need to invest in three unique car seats; an infant seat, a toddler seat and a full-back seatbelt-positioning booster seat. You can learn more about each stage of seat in our March article, ‘How long must my child use a rear-facing car seat?

The design and build of a seat should be specific to your little one’s height, weight and, most importantly, their stage of development. No single seat can keep a child safe from birth to puberty. The developmental safety needs of an infant, a toddler and a child are completely unique to each stage.

Would you put your newborn in shoes made for a 12-year-old? Sure, you could add extra padding and stuffing, but would you expect the shoe to support and protect their little feet? Of course not. You would never consider this, no matter how much money it would save. So why would you put your newborn baby in a car seat designed to protect a 12-year-old?

People often ask what the “safest but cheapest” car seat is. There are two very different answers to that question: the best seat for your child is the very best seat you can afford after doing everything you can to save, because the cost of a car seat matters.

Child passenger safety seat installation

An incorrectly installed car seat is NOT safe. Always follow the installation instructions in the car seat manual. Most brands also make a YouTube installation video.

When using a forward-facing seat, there will be red guides on the plastic body to show where the seatbelt should go. Blue guides on a seat show where the seatbelt goes when using the seat rear-facing. When installing a seat with the vehicle seatbelt, make sure there are no twists and you remove all slack from it.

“The design and build of a seat should be specific to your little one’s height, weight and, most importantly, their stage of development. No single seat can keep a child safe from birth to puberty.”

If you are using an Isofix connection, listen for a click and check for the seat-specific marker that shows the seat is firmly secure. There is no safety difference between an Isofix and seatbelt installation when they are done properly. Once it is in, the car seat shouldn’t move more than two to three centimetres when given a firm shake at the base.

Child passenger safety in the car seat

Check the orange sticker on the body of the car seat to ensure your child hasn’t outgrown it. If your child is heavier or taller than their car seat allows for, they are no longer safe. After the maximum height or weight limit, the harness will likely fail in a crash.

Where the harness or seatbelt comes over your child’s shoulder is critical. When rear-facing, it should be at or just below the shoulder. When forward-facing, it should be at or just above. In the best seats, the harness and headrest move together to ensure the headrest height provides the best protection for the neck and head. The basic rule is that the top of the ear should not go above the top of the headrest.

The harness or seatbelt should be smooth with no twists. Each twist affects their ability to evenly distribute the crash force. Once you hear the click of the buckle engage, remove all slack from across the legs first by gently pulling up on the belt/s. Then you pull the seatbelt smooth and flat across the body or, in the case of the harness, pull the strap to tighten it until you cannot insert more than one finger between the harness and their collar bone. If you can gather the material of the harness into a “pinch”, the harness is still too loose.

In other countries, there are places where families can take their seats to ensure they are using them correctly. Sadly, in South Africa, you can only count on safe personal advice online through #CarseatFullstop or Wheel Well. Both offer in-person or online support to ensure your seat is secure and your little one is safe. You can also donate your used car seats to Wheel Well to clean, refurbish and pass on to those in need. Give a child the gift of safety.