Do you know where you stand (and where your children sit, most safely and legally), when it comes to the children’s car seat laws? Here are some useful pointers to help you choose the right one
Who has to sit in a car seat?
All children under 12 years old or 135cm tall (whichever is first), have to sit in an appropriate car seat in the front AND rear seats of any private car, van or goods vehicle.
After the age of 12 though, children can use adults’ seat-belts as long as they’re wearing them properly. And if you’re driving (yes, even on a short trip to the shops or the school run), then you’re responsible for ensuring everyone in your car is following those two simple rules, right up until the age of 14. Don’t panic. We’ve created the handy chart above to help you.
Keep your child in a rearward-facing child seat for as long as possible because they provide more protection for the head, neck and spine than forward-facing seats. Don’t be tempted to move them into a forward-facing seat too soon. It is common in some countries, especially Sweden, to keep children rearward-facing until they are four years old. Larger seats that keep the child rearward-facing until they are 18kg in weight (roughly four years old) are available in the UK. However, because they are larger, make sure there’s enough space to fit them in your vehicle before you choose one. It may mean you can carry fewer other passengers. It may also be more difficult to fit.
It’s also better to keep your child in the rear of the car rather than the front. Some parents like to be able to keep an eye on their baby or child and so put them in the front. But, in fact, according to the UK’s most prominent internet resource, childcarseats.org.uk, they are safer in the rear, and remember, if you are trying to drive and look after a child at the same time, you will be distracted and more likely to crash.
When moving to the next stage car seat always go by the weight of the child rather than by age; don’t exceed manufacturer’s maximum weight limit.
Having trouble getting your children to strap in? We can offer some help with that...
What does the ‘right’ car seat look like?
In short, it’s a seat that’s suitable. It’s a seat that’s right for you, for your child, for your vehicle, for your pocket and conforms to the European-wide R44 standard (it will have an E mark to show it does). Alternatively, it can conform to the new ‘i-Size’ regulations. i-Size seats have been designed to take side-impacts into account, which is an improvement on older style seats. The i-Size regulations use your child’s height to determine which car seat is the right one (it’s much easier to judge how tall your children are, than how much they weigh) – much safer.
Can I re-use my car seat for a younger child?
You can do, yes. And if there’s very little difference in their ages, there shouldn't be a problem. But it’s also worth bearing this in mind: plastic can get brittle with age. Older seats may have weaknesses you can’t see, especially if they’ve been stored in a cupboard for ages. Not only that, but older seats are less likely to be up to date in terms of safety standards.
At the very least, if you’re re-using a seat, ask yourself these questions first:
- Has the car seat ever been in a crash?
- Has this model ever been recalled by the manufacturer?
- Do I still have all the parts, including the odd buckles and straps?
- And does it have its original labels, is there an expiry date I can see?
RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents is a British charity which aims to promote safety) advise people not to buy second hand seats from a car boot sale, or online, or from someone who is not using it any more. It’s unlikely you’ll know its history and it could have damage that is not visible to the naked eye.
Believe it or not, car seats have an expiry date. So if you can’t find an expiry date sticker then it’s best to avoid anything that could be over 5 or 6 years old. And while it may seem obvious, if the instructions aren’t there, do take a minute or two to look them up on the manufacturer’s website.
Can I carry on using a car seat after an accident?
You could do, but why take the risk? As it happens, we provide child car seat cover as standard with our comprehensive motor insurance policies. We’ll replace any child’s car seat up to the value of £100 after an accident or theft — even if it looks undamaged.
Is there a right and wrong way to fit a car seat?
Very definitely, yes. To be useful, in an accident, a child’s car seat must be fitted in line with the manufacturer's instructions.
Fitting one badly is like putting a crash helmet on but leaving it completely unbuckled: there’s no point at all in doing that. However, getting the fitting right depends on what type of seat you have. There are two standard kinds: car seats that rely on seatbelt fixings, and ISOFIX car seats.
- ISOFIX has been the international standard for all children’s car seat manufacturers for many years. It makes sure there’s a solid connection between the seat and the vehicle (some seats won’t fit into older cars securely). If you’re fitting an ISOFIX seat, you’ll find that it anchors tightly to specific points in your car - usually on the outer seats in the back, in the gap between the seat and rear seat backrest.
- If you’re using a car seat that depends on a safety belt, then do make sure the belt’s not twisted at all when you’re doing it up. It’s important, because unless the safety belt can work (unless inertia can pull it tight), then the car seat can’t protect your child properly.
Don’t forget, it’s illegal for a child to sit in a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat if the front passenger airbag is active. It must be deactivated – either by you, or by the car dealer.
Tips on buying the right car seat
- Okay, most importantly, think about why you’re buying a seat. It’s not a fashion statement, so while the colour may be important, it’s your children’s safety that should guide your decision.
- Choose a seat made by a reputable manufacturer. Eight well known brands are Britax, Concord, Cybex, Graco, Kiddy, Maxi-Cosi, Recaro and Silver Cross – but there are over 100 to choose from. The consumer website Which? tests car seats, regularly.
- Take your children with you to choose, ask someone who’s been trained properly to show you how the seats fit into your car – and how to strap your children in safely, too. Do try the seat in your car before you buy it, or make sure you can get a refund if it’s not suitable.
Finally, if you are in the market for a new car, it’s worth asking if the vehicle is compatible with i-Size car seats. It’s true, it’s unlikely to be a deciding factor, but some dealerships offer a discount or deal that takes account of the i-Size seat regulations coming into force. Worth asking about.