Child car safety is simple. It starts with correctly fitting child car restraints or booster seats and making sure your child always uses them. It also involves keeping children cool in the car on hot days and never leaving children unattended in cars.
Child car safety: car restraint basics
Child car safety begins with carefully choosing, properly fitting and always using the right child car restraint or booster seat for your child’s age and size.
The restraint should meet the requirements of Australian/New Zealand Standard (AS/NZS) 1754.
If you buy or accept a second-hand restraint, you should check its age, condition and history.
You should move your child into the next type of restraint or booster seat only when he’s too big for his current restraint. Using a restraint that doesn’t fit your child properly can put him at risk in a crash.
Car safety: in the car
Children should sit in the back seat, where they’re safest.
In fact, it’s safest for children under 12 years to sit in the back seat if possible. Children under four aren’t allowed to travel in the front seat of a car with two or more rows. Children under seven years shouldn’t travel in the front unless all the back seats have other children under seven in them.
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.
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. Never drive while the belt is twisted or undone.
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.
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 standing still.
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 must also restrain any pets travelling with you.
Car safety: 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 years.
Also get into the habit of getting your child in and out of the car on the kerb side, away from traffic.
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 singalong or recite some nursery rhymes.
- Position your child’s car seat so that you and your child 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.
- 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.
Never leave a child alone in a car. 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 minutes.
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. A loose harness can put your child at risk of injury in a crash.
- 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.
Children with additional needs
If you have a child with additional needs, it might be more challenging to keep your child safe in the car.
Health professionals such as occupational therapists can work with your family to come up with ways to ensure safety. These can include modifying a restraint, recommending a restraint accessory or suggesting a specialised restraint.