Do you know where you stand – and more importantly where your children sit 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 either 12 years old or 135 cm tall 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, children can use adult seat belts as long as they’re wearing them properly. When you’re driving (even on short trips), you’re responsible for making sure everyone in your car follows those two simple rules, right up until the age of 14. Don’t panic. We’ve created the handy chart above to help you.
Front or rear?
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’s common in some countries to keep children rearward-facing until they are four years old. Larger seats that keep your child rearward-facing until they are 18 kg 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. These larger chairs may also be more difficult to fit.
Experts say it’s 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, children 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 your child moves to the next stage car seat, always go by their weight rather than their age. However, make sure you don’t exceed the 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?
It’s a seat that conforms to the European-wide R44 standard (it will have an E mark to show it does) and is right for:
- your child
- your vehicle, and
- your pocket.
Alternatively, it can conform to the new ‘i-Size’ regulations. i-Size seats are 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, which is much safer than using weight. Plus, it’s much easier to judge how tall your children are, than how much they weigh.
What about booster seats?
Children over 125 cm in height and weighing 22 kg or more can travel in a car using a backless booster seat. If your child is smaller than these measurements, you must put them in a proper car seat as it offers them more protection.
Booster cushions rely on adult seat belts, which don’t fit children’s bodies properly. They also offer no protection for your child if you’re involved in a side impact crash.
If you already have booster seats, you won’t be breaking the law using them – the new rules apply to new products only. However, given the safety issues, you might want to think about replacing any backless booster seats you currently use.
Can I re-use my car seat for a younger child?
Yes, you can. And if there’s very little difference in their ages, there shouldn't be a problem. But it’s worth bearing in mind that 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?
The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents advises people not to buy a second-hand seat from someone who isn’t using it any more, whether from a car boot sale or online. It’s unlikely you’ll know its history and it could have damage that isn’t 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, it’s best to avoid anything that could be over five or six 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 – and 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:
- 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.
- Car seats relying on seat belt fixings - If you’re using a car seat that depends on a seat belt, make sure the belt’s not twisted at all when you’re doing it up. It’s important because unless the seat belt can work with inertia pulling it tight, 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. Either you or your car dealer must deactivate it.
Tips on buying the right car seat
- Think about why you’re buying a seat. It’s not a fashion statement, so while the colour may be a factor, 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. 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. It’s worth asking about.