Publish date: 29 January 2024

Road trauma is the leading cause of death and disabling injury for children in Australia.1 But studies show that many deaths may be prevented, and the injuries less severe, if a child is fitted in the right type of car seat that is right for their age and size. 

As parents, we all want to keep our little ones safe. When we know better, we do better. But doing the right thing as a parent to protect your child in the car has become confusing. Research into car seat safety has come a long way and in its more advanced state, what the law now prescribes appears the bare minimum when it comes to child car seat safety.  

So when the law has a set of standards that differs to what research perspectives are revealing, what is the parent to do? 

The Law

It goes without saying that in Australia all passengers must be appropriately restrained in a car. So what does the law say about the appropriate restraint for a child and what is best practice? In Queensland, the law says: 

  • Children under 6 months must use an approved, properly fastened, and adjusted rearward facing child restraint 
  • Children between 6 months – 4 years old must use a properly fastened and adjusted rearward facing seat OR a forward-facing child restraint 
  • Children between 4 years – 7 years old must use a properly fastened and adjusted forward-facing child restraint with a built-in harness or an approved booster seat with an adult lap sash 
  • Children from 7 years old may use a booster seat with a properly fastened and adjusted lap or sash seatbelt or child safety harness, or a properly fastened and adjusted seatbelt 

But is this best practice and what will keep your babies and children safest when faced with a motor vehicle collision? 

The Research – rearward facing  

According to the Neuroscience Research Australia and Kid Safe, the safest practice is to keep a baby rear facing up to 4 years old as the evidence is that a rear facing seat will more fully support a baby’s head and neck.2 

So why is it safer to prolong the time a child is rearward facing? 

Babies and infants have relatively large heads and weak necks which put them at particularly high risk of serious injuries if their head and neck is not supported. A rearward facing restraint supports the child’s neck and head, and they are more protected by the force in a collision as the force is experienced in a different way and they are much less likely to injure their neck and spine. 

Frontal crash tests reveal that rear facing car seats are five times safer than a child sitting forward-facing.3 But, despite recommendations that it is safer to be rear facing, according to a poll conducted by Dr Anthea Rhodes, an alarming 63% of children are in a forward-facing car seat by as young as 18 months of age. 

The Research – forward-facing  

Once a child reaches the minimum height markers and/or turns 4 years of age, parents can turn their child’s seat forward-facing or switch to a ‘Type G’ restraint. Type G seats generally have an age guide of 0 – 8 years and are different to a booster seat (which is used with a seatbelt not a harness).   

It is still far safer to keep a child in a Type G harness until they outgrow that seat (often at 8 years of age), however whether a child reaches the height marker will be based on torso length, being from seated to shoulder height. 

The Research – the seat belt 

It is reported that children in adult seatbelts are on average 2.7 times more likely to suffer an injury in a car accident than adults wearing the same type of seatbelt.4 

So even though the law says a child can use an adult seat belt from 7 years of age, a child should pass “The Five Step Test” and meet the minimum height of 145cms for which an adult lap sash seatbelt is designed. That is typically at 10 – 12 years of age.5  

The Research – the front seat 

According to Child Road Safety, the injury risk to children in the front seat is double compared to the back seat, regardless of the type of child car seat.6 

So while it is legal for a child over 7 years of age to sit in the front seat, it is not safer for those under 12 sit in the front seat due to the risk of injury. The increased risk comes from air bag deployment and poorly adjusted seatbelts which are too big for a small child. 

Final important lessons  

  1. All car seats in Australia must comply with the appropriate Australian and New Zealand Standard AS/NZA 1754 
  1. Ensure that your child is always travelling in the correct and appropriately sized restraint for their height (making sure they meet the minimum height markers for forward-facing and/or booster seats) 
  1. Your child will usually be far safer remaining rear facing for as long as possible and remaining fully harnessed 
  1. Before moving your child to an adult seat belt, ensure they are at least 145cms and pass the 5-step safety test 
  1. Ensure your child is always correctly restrained in the car seat, even for short trips 

As a personal injury lawyer, I regularly see parents seeking advice due to injuries their children have sustained in a road transport accident, some of which are catastrophic brain injuries and spinal cord injuries which result in lifelong impairment and disability.  

As a mother as well, my hope is that by driving awareness to the issue, parents can implement some of the best practices being shared by both the law and ongoing research studies, so our precious cargo can be better protected from the possible risk of death or serious injury on our roads. 

As published in My Weekly Preview and The Courier Mail.

Candice Heisler
Candice Heisler
Senior Associate
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