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More children die in car accidents than any other kind of accident. Correctly using and fitting child restraints, booster seats or child safety harnesses can substantially reduce the risk of serious injury or death. It’s never safe to leave your child unrestrained in the car, even for short distances. 

What you need to know

Most accidents occur close to home, and most kids are hurt in the back seat.

Child restraints and booster seats are more appropriate than seatbelts for young children. Fitting and using an approved child restraint or booster seat properly is the most important thing you can do to keep your child safe in a moving car. Never move off in the car until everyone is properly restrained.

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You can find out more in our article on car restraints and booster seats.

Promoting car safety for your child

In the car
Young children learn most by watching the grown-ups around them. If you want your child to behave safely, you can set a good example by always wearing your own seatbelt.

Other important safety guidelines include the following:

  • S it children in the back, where they’re safest. New child restraint road rules, nationally agreed on by all Australian states and territories, are gradually being implemented around Australia. The new rules are as follows:
    • Children under four years shouldn’t travel in the front seat of a vehicle that has two or more rows of seats.
    • Children over four and under seven years shouldn’t travel in the front seat of a vehicle unless all other seats in the row(s) behind are also occupied by children under seven years.
  • Don’t drive unless all seat belts are done up. If your child removes the straps or undoes the buckle, stop the car and do up the belt again. Explain what you’re doing. If you need to give your child a reward or incentive for leaving the belt or buckle alone, it’s best to use one that will distract your child’s attention and last until you reach your destination. Never drive while the belt is twisted or undone.
  • Your child should always keep arms, legs and head inside the car when it’s moving or parked on the side of the road. You can also activate the childproof locks so your child can’t get out when the car is moving or stationary.
  • Loose items can fly about in a crash, so keep loose items in the glove box, the boot or behind the cargo barrier in station wagons and four-wheel drives. When travelling with an empty booster seat in the car, fasten the seatbelt around it to prevent the booster seat from injuring someone. You should also restrain any pets travelling with you.

Around cars and roads
You can teach your child about safety around cars. For example, always make sure your child is supervised by a grown-up around roads until at least the age of 10. Also establish the habit of getting your child in and out of the car from the passenger side, away from traffic.

You might like to read about pedestrian safety at home and away from home.

Keeping your child happy in the car

Driving with bored and unhappy children in the car can make it harder for you to concentrate and drive safely. The following tips might help:

  • Have a chat while you drive. Talking helps pass the time and distracts your child. Discuss what you’ll be doing when you arrive, point out sights through the window, have a sing-a-long or recite some nursery rhymes.
  • Make sure your child can see you by placing the car seat where you can see each other, if possible. If your child can see your face, she’s less likely to get bored or feel lonely. The best place for the car seat is in the middle of the back seat.
  • Praise your child for good car behaviour, such as not wriggling out of seatbelts or harnesses, not distracting the driver and not playing with the locks. Mention your child’s good behaviour several times during the journey. For example, ‘I like driving the car when you keep your seatbelt on – that’s great behaviour’.
  • Provide plenty of safe distractions,such as CDs or audio books to listen to, and soft hand-held games to play with. Snacks and drinks are also a good idea.

Heat and cars

It’s true: cars turn into ovens very quickly, even on cool or overcast days. Never leave your child or pet alone in the car, especially in hot weather. The temperature inside a car on a hot day can rise to dangerous levels very quickly.

Leaving your child alone in a car is not only extremely dangerous, but also illegal in every state and territory in Australia. You can be charged and convicted.

On a hot day, the temperature inside a parked car can be as much as 40°C hotter than it is outside. Even on a day in the mid-20s, the temperature inside a car can soar to dangerous levels within 15 minutes.

You might like to consider the following facts:

  • Overheated cars can cause children to suffer rapid dehydration, hyperthermia (heatstroke), suffocation and death.
  • Winding the window down 5 cm or so has little effect on rising heat.
  • The colour of the seats and interior has no effect on rising heat.
  • Large cars heat up just as fast as small cars.
  • The younger the child, the greater his sensitivity to heatstroke, and the faster he’ll dehydrate.
In 2008 and 2009, 1857 children in New South Wales and 1543 children in Victoria were rescued from locked cars.

Travelling tips for hot weather

The following tips can help keep your child comfortable and safe when you’re driving in hot conditions:

  • Give your child plenty of water to drink during car trips.
  • Dress her in cool, comfortable, loose-fitting clothing.
  • Check the temperature of car seats, harnesses and seat belts before your child gets into the car. Hot metal, plastic or leather can burn your child. If surfaces are hot, cover them with a damp cloth and then help your child into the car.
  • Don’t loosen your child’s harness in summer – it must fit snugly whether he’s awake or asleep.
  • Stick visors and shades to the windows, or hang a damp towel over the window (but check it doesn’t stop the driver from seeing the road from side or rear windows) to protect your child from the sun. But note that putting a hood or bonnet over a capsule to protect a baby from the sun reduces air circulation.
  • On long journeys, stop every two hours so everyone can get out of the car and have a stretch. This includes babies, who can roll around on a rug on the ground.
  • It’s sensible to plan driving during the cooler times of day. Cool your car as much as possible before you let your child get in.

Important facts and stats

A 2005 report by the Motor Accidents Authority of New South Wales found that 82% of children admitted to hospital after a car crash weren’t properly restrained at the time of the accident.

A 2002 study by the Monash University Accident Research Centre estimated that 70% of child restraints aren’t fitted or used properly.

Even though child restraints and other safety measures, such as airbags and crumple zones, have made cars much safer for children, 531 children aged 0-16 died on Australian roads between 2004 and 2008.

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  • Last Updated 10-08-2011
  • Last Reviewed 05-07-2010
  • Australian Bureau of Statistics (2005). Children’s Accidents and Injuries. Retrieved October 22, 2009, from http://www.abs.gov.au/AUSSTATS/abs@.nsf/7d12b0f6763c78caca257061001cc588/1d72f5e5299decc5ca25703b0080ccbf!OpenDocument.

    Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (2009). A picture of Australian children 2009 (Report No. PHE 112). Retrieved October 22, 2009, from http://www.aihw.gov.au/publications/phe/phe-112-10704/phe-112-10704.pdf.

    Brown, J., Bilston, L., McCaskill, M., & Henderson, M. (2005). Identification of injury mechanisms for child occupants aged 2-8 in motor vehicle accidents. Retrieved January 31, 2006, from www.maa.nsw.gov.au/default.aspx?MenuID=189.

    KidSafe (2009). Kids in hot cars. Retrieved December 17, 2010, from www.kidsafevic.com.au/images/stories/pdfs/hotcars.pdf.

    Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development and Local Government (2009). Road Deaths Australia: 2008 Statistical Summary. Retrieved December 17, 2010, from www.infrastrucutre.gov.au/roads/safety/publications/2009/pdf/rsr_04.pdf.