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Child car seat fitting - are you putting your children at risk?

Up to 85% of children are being put at risk travelling in cars because either their seat isn't correctly fitted or it's not the right size for them

Words ByClaire Evans

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A What Car? investigation into child car seat safety has shown that up to 85% of children are being put in danger when they travel on our roads. In most cases, their parents or carers arenโ€™t intentionally putting them in harmโ€™s way; the problem is that either the seat isnโ€™t correctly fitted, the child isnโ€™t sitting in it correctly or itโ€™s not the right size for the youngster.

We checked 85 child seats in 51 cars and found that only 36% (31) of the seats were correctly fitted, and when you also take into account the suitability and fitting of the child into the seat, just 15% (13) of them were correct.

Some of the worst cases included an 18-month-old who was travelling in an infant carrier that had been turned to face forwards and was secured only with the carโ€™s seatbelt, and a three-year-old child who was travelling in the front seat of a car with no child seat at all.

Of the 51 cars checked, two had seats that were so inappropriate โ€“ because they were either too big or small for the child or they werenโ€™t legal โ€“ that the parents had to go to a nearby shop and buy a suitable child seat before they were allowed to drive away.

Our research was conducted in a shopping centre car park in Leicester, where we checked the child car seats, or absence of them, in shoppersโ€™ cars. We had the assistance of one police officer and seven community support officers from Leicestershire Police, who pulled motorists over so that their cars could be checked by three child car seat fitting experts from Child Seat Safety Ltd.

We chose Child Seat Safety to assist us because it runs the UKโ€™s only course in child car seat fitting approved by the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH). It also works with the industry and carries out regular seat check days for local authorities around the UK.

Having the police involved in the seat checks enabled us to look at more seats than we would have done in a voluntary check. However, the aim of seat checking events is to educate motorists, so people arenโ€™t fined if their child isnโ€™t in an appropriate seat unless they refuse to have the seat fitted correctly or purchase an appropriate seat on the day.

Why are so many child seats fitted incorrectly?

Louise Shafi, who works as a road safety officer for the London Borough of Bromley, says they see the same issues over and over again at their regular seat check clinics.

โ€œWe see a lot of car seats that arenโ€™t compatible with the cars theyโ€™re being used in,โ€ she says. โ€œLots of people buy child car seats online and simply trust the โ€˜fit finderโ€™ if it states the seat will fit in their car. But thatโ€™s not always correct, especially when it comes to seats for newborn babies.โ€

Child Seat Safety director Claire Waterhouse believes that, although parents are keen to get information and advice, they often get conflicting messages from online forums. โ€œParents are doing more research before buying or replacing child seats, but they donโ€™t always go to reliable sources of information,โ€ she says. โ€œItโ€™s not advisable to simply trust the word of another parent on an online forum who tells them a car seat will be suitable for their child or car. They need to check this information with an expert to ensure theyโ€™re keeping their child as safe as possible.โ€

What are the most common mistakes?

Our investigation highlighted the difficulties parents have with adjusting harnesses so they fit children as they grow, and in fitting seats using car seatbelts. Of the 85 seats we checked, 23% had major problems with the harnesses, including twisted straps and >> wrongly positioned harnesses. Only three of the seats we checked had slot-in Isofix mountings; they were all correctly fitted, but 14 (16%) of those secured via the carโ€™s seatbelt needed it to be rerouted.

Child Seat Safety groups the faults with child seat fitting into two categories: those that can be easily corrected and those that arenโ€™t rectifiable. โ€œIn our checks, 74% of common faults were rectifiable, including the most common one, which is an issue with the seat harness, including it being too loose, twisted or incorrectly positioned,โ€ says Child Seat Safety co-director Julie Dagnall.

โ€œMany parents also use the carโ€™s head rest to secure a high-back booster seat in place, when, in fact, the head rest needs to be at head height so that it can move with the child during a collision to give them constant protection.โ€ This was an issue with 11% of the seats checked during our investigation.

However, the most frequent problem is that parents move the child up to a larger seat too soon. Seats are either classified by the โ€˜Groupโ€™ system, which is based on a childโ€™s weight, or the newer โ€˜iSizeโ€™ system, which categorises them by a childโ€™s height.

โ€œItโ€™s important to consider the age and health development of your child, too,โ€ says Dagnall. โ€œMaximum bone strength and mass donโ€™t occur until around 20 years of age, so the longer you can keep a child in a seat that offers the maximum protection for their weight, height and bone development, the safer they will be.โ€

Whatโ€™s being done to improve child seat fitting?

There has been a lot of publicity about child car seat fitting in the past few years, and the proportion of incorrectly fitted seats has reduced significantly. In 2012, it was estimated that, across the UK, around 80% of child car seats were fitted incorrectly. While our findings show this is still the case in certain areas, statistics gathered over the past four years by Child Seat Safety show that, overall, 51% of car seats being used in the UK are fitted correctly and 49% of children are properly installed in them.

The improvement is the result of work by both child seat makers and the shops that sell their seats. Seat manufacturer Britax has its own trainers who run frequent seat fitting sessions for retailers nationwide. Some of the larger seat retailers have also taken up additional training for their staff. Today, many stores have in-store child car seat champions who are the go-to experts for customers and other members of staff.

Mothercare has sent staff from many branches on an IOSH course, and it conducts mystery shopping exercises, carried out by Child Seat Safety, to assess the quality of the advice given by its staff.

The retailer has also created a printed checklist that seat fitting advisers use while talking to buyers to run through their needs and ensure theyโ€™ve given them the best possible advice. The checklist is signed by the adviser and the customer, who retains a copy of it. This can be used at a later date in any store to recheck that the seat still meets the childโ€™s needs properly and, if the parents have replaced their car, that the seat is still compatible with it.

Toys R Us has also invested in training for its staff, and its aim is to have an IOSH-accredited adviser in every Babies R Us shop. Toys R Us training and development manager Adrian Wurr says: โ€œWe have a methodical approach to gathering all the information required to help parents choose a suitable product. We also focus on demonstrating how to continue using the product for optimum safety throughout its life. Thereโ€™s lots to remember, so we actively encourage parents to come back to our child seat experts to seek advice whenever they wish to, throughout their childโ€™s development.โ€

Wurrโ€™s point about giving ongoing advice to parents is something thatโ€™s also being promoted by Child Seat Safety. โ€œThe growth of online shopping isnโ€™t good for child seat safety,โ€ says Dagnall. โ€œItโ€™s easy to choose and buy a child seat online and get it delivered to your door, but even if thereโ€™s an online fitting video you can watch, you canโ€™t be sure youโ€™ve fitted it into your car correctly.

โ€œIf you buy from a retailer with expert fitting knowledge, youโ€™re paying for a service rather than just a seat. They will be happy for you to go back to them and get free advice as your child grows.โ€

What Car? says...

There needs to be a change in the way retailers and parents view the process of buying child car seats. Weโ€™d like to see all retailers offering free post-sale advice and encouraging parents to keep in touch and come back if they change their car or theyโ€™ve forgotten how to adjust the seat. If parents can have an ongoing relationship with a child seat adviser, they are far more likely to avoid the usual fitting faults and keep their children safer.

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