Car safety: child restraint basics

Children aged up to seven years must travel in a child restraint. Children seven years and older can use an adult seatbelt, but only if they’re big enough to safely wear one. This is when children are at least 145cm tall.

This means that child car safety begins with carefully choosing, properly fitting, and always using the right child restraint for your child’s age and size. Your child will be ready to move onto a bigger child restraint once his shoulders reach higher than the upper shoulder height marker found on child restraints.

By law, all child restraints or car seats must meet Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS 1754.

Our article on child restraints and booster seats takes you through Australian car seat law and safety standards in more detail.

Car safety: seatbelts

In Australia it’s illegal to drive or travel in a car without a properly adjusted and fastened seatbelt. It’s also illegal and unsafe to carry your child on your lap in a private car, even if you’re wearing a seatbelt. Also, you should never share a seatbelt with your child or another passenger.

You can set a good example for children by always wearing your own seatbelt. Young children learn most by watching the grown-ups around them.

Start driving only when all seatbelts are done up. Never drive while your child’s restraint straps are undone or twisted. If your child removes straps or undoes buckles, stop the car and do up the straps or buckles again. Explain what you’re doing.

If you need to give your child a reward or incentive for leaving straps or buckles alone, it’s best to use one that will distract your child from the straps and last until you reach your destination.

When travelling with an empty booster seat in the car, fasten the seatbelt around it to prevent the booster seat from injuring someone in the case of a car crash.

You should also restrain any pets travelling with you. You can buy pet harnesses that you can secure with a seatbelt or luggage tie. This protects not only your pet but also any passengers in your car.

Where children should sit in cars

There are minimum legal requirements for where children can sit in motor vehicles:

  • Children under four years must not travel in the front seat if a car has two or more rows of seats.
  • If all other seats are being used by children aged under seven years, children aged between four years and up to seven years may travel in the front seat using an approved forward-facing booster seat and a properly fastened and adjusted seatbelt.
The back row of seats is the safest place in the car – you should seat your child in the back row whenever possible. If you must seat your child in the front seat, adjust the front seat as far back as possible to protect your child from injury if airbags are activated. You should never disable or remove a car’s airbags.

Extra tips for child car safety

Here are some extra safety tips when travelling in the car:

  • Ensure your child always keeps arms, legs and head inside the car when it’s moving or parked on the side of the road.
  • Activate childproof door locks so your child can’t get out when the car is moving or standing still. These locks are usually inside most car doors. Check your car’s manual.
  • Keep loose items in the glove box or the boot or behind the cargo barrier in station wagons and four-wheel drives. Loose items can fly about in a crash and increase the risk of injury.
  • Always get your child in and out of the car on the kerbside, away from traffic.
Always hold small children’s hands around roads. Children need grown-up supervision around roads until they’re at least 10 years old. You can read more about pedestrian safety.

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, or point out sights through the window. You can also sing along to your child’s favourite music CD, recite some nursery rhymes or play an audio story.
  • Praise your child for good car behaviour, like keeping her harness or seatbelt on, amusing herself, and leaving car locks alone. 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’. You can also try using reward charts.
  • Provide plenty of safe distractions for your child, like music or audio books to listen to, and soft hand-held games or books to play with. Snacks and drinks are a good idea if your child is in a forward-facing child restraint where you can see and check on him.
  • Pull over to the side of the road if your child needs attention.
Never leave your child unattended in a car. On a hot day, the temperature inside a car can get to dangerously high levels and cause serious harm or even death to your child. Read more about heat and cars.

Children with additional needs

If you have a child with additional needs, like a medical condition or physical disability, there might be exemptions to child restraint road rules.

Health professionals like occupational therapists can work with your family to choose the best restraint for your child or to modify a restraint so your child can use it. Only health professionals can modify restraints, recommend restraint accessories or suggest specialised restraints.