Child-seat laws seem like one of those inarguable givens, like regulations forbidding you to murder your mother-in-law or to keep a killer whale as a pet (they like mother-in-law for breakfast).
Almost everyone who has children will tell you that they are irresistibly driven by a deep-seated and primeval fear to do everything possible to protect their unique and wonderful offspring, so they’re happy to go by the book when it comes to child seats in cars.
Other Nanny State laws might chafe, but this one just makes us feel safe.
It wasn’t always thus, of course, because those of us older than, say, Daniel Ricciardo, can remember lying across the back seat of cars, when child restraints were non-existent.
Incredibly, as recently as early 2010, the West Australian Traffic Code required that children under 12 months of age be transported in a suitable, approved car restraint, but from one year and one day old to 16 years, it was legal to put them in a car with no more than a “properly fastened seat belt, where one was available”.
Just try putting them in a seatbelt, and see how they like having the top strap go right across their pudgy little faces.
If you’ve got a 12-month-old child handy, just try putting them in a seatbelt, and see how they like having the top strap go right across their pudgy little faces. Then step back and think about how absurdly and criminally unsafe that would be.
Unsurprisingly, in October 2010, WA joined all the other States and Territories in signing up the National Child Restraint Laws, which had been devised in 2008, by the Australian Transport Council.
This council of wise men was made up of the Transport and Road Safety Ministers from across Australia and, while it’s also responsible for a national demerits system, the work it did in this case was quite good.
The reasons for these national laws were quite simple, and are best summed up by this simple quote from the guidelines: “A child who is properly secured in an approved child car seat is less likely to be injured or killed in a car crash than one who is not.”
Hard to argue with that logic.
While there is some debate, globally, about rear-facing car-seat laws, and how long they should apply for, and further discussion over ISOFIX seats versus older, top-tether and seat-belt types, our child car-seat laws seem like a fairly sensible approach.
Here, then, is how the car-seat laws work.
Baby Seat Laws
Children up to the tender and tiny age of six months must be secured in an approved, rearward-facing restraint with a five-or-six-point harness. This is because of the strength of their necks, which is best almost zero, and thus their tendency to be hurt in rear-end collisions.
Your baby can move up to dealing with the forward-facing car-seat laws once they pass six months, but research - particularly in Sweden - suggests you're better off leaving them facing backwards for a while longer, and they don’t complain at that age about being bored anyway.
Children aged from six months to four years old must be kept in an approved child restraint that faces either backwards or forwards, with a five-or-six-point harness. The choice is up to you, but the rule of thumb is to switch your child to forward facing once they get too big for their rearward seat.
Because children grow at different rates, size, rather than age, is always a better indicator of the time to change.
Remember also that children under four years old cannot travel in the front seat of a vehicle that has two or more rows.
Kids over the age of four but under seven cannot travel in the front seat of a car with two or more rows of seats, unless all other rear seats are occupied by children younger than seven.
So that’s simple enough, but once your child turns four, they are allowed to sit in a booster seat, which basically works to turn them into someone who sits at an adult-like height, so that the lap-sash seatbelt they’re now allowed to use, in conjunction with the booster, fits them properly and doesn’t go around their necks.
If your child is too small for the child restraint specified for their age, they should be kept in their current child restraint until it is safe for them to move to the next level.
Some booster seats also come with built-in, and more closely fitted, harnesses.
Booster-seat laws apply at a certain age, but once again it’s safer to leave your child in a full-on, forward-facing child seat until they have grown out of it (their head starts sitting higher than the top of the seat, or their shoulders are above the top straps).
Once again, car-seat laws should be a minimum rather than a fixed guideline. Look at the size of your child, and in particular where the seatbelt sits on them, and make your own decision, always erring on the side of caution.
As the national regulations advise: “If your child is too small for the child restraint specified for their age, they should be kept in their current child restraint until it is safe for them to move to the next level.”
A bigger boost
Basic booster seats, which offer only a hard cushion to sit on, effectively, are being phased out in favour of more advanced models that also offer back and side wings, to protect you child’s head, according to Kidsafe.
The National Guidelines for the Safe Restraint of Children Travelling in Motor Vehicles were developed by Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) and Kidsafe - The Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Australia, and offer a pretty handy website if you have any doubts at all about car-seat laws.
From the age of seven, it is strictly legal for your child to use a lap-sash seatbelt like a grown-up, and without a booster, but again, depending on the height of your child, it is safer to keep them in a booster seat until they grow out of it. And no matter how much they complain about it.
Kidsafe offers a five-point checklist of whether your now quite large child is ready to use a lap-sash seatbelt:
- Can the child sit with their back against the vehicle seat back?
- Do the child's knees bend in front of the edge of the seat?
- Does the sash (shoulder) belt sit across the middle of the shoulder, not on the neck or out near the arm?
- Is the lap belt sitting low across the hips touching the thighs?
- Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?
If you have any doubts at all, keep them boosted, and safe, until they’re too big for the booster seat.
Taxi child-seat laws
While child car-seat laws have been nationalised, the way those rules apply to taxis is still a state-by-state affair, so it’s best to check with the taxi company you’re using as to what their rules are, and what they provide.
Basically, though, the safest thing to do, if it’s practical, is to bring your own child restraint to use in the cab.
In NSW, a minimum of 10 per cent of the taxi fleet is required to be fitted with child restraints, but that still means you’ve got a 90 per cent chance of not getting one, unless you pre-book.
In WA, a taxi driver who does not have a suitable restraint in the car is exempt from ensuring that children under seven are properly restrained - which makes it your problem, parents.
Interestingly, in South Australia, children under the age of one may sit on the lap of another passenger in a taxi who is over the age of 16, “but not between the passenger and the seatbelt”.
Essentially, taking your child or baby in a taxi is a grey area when it comes to the law.