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Baby and child car seat laws explained

Other Nanny State laws might chafe, but this one just makes us feel safe.

When you and I were knee-high to a grasshopper, child car restraints were a suggestion rather than an absolute requirement. In fact, my mother often tells the story of carrying my sister and I in large grass baskets with the seat belt through the handle, smiling quite worryingly, I might add, at the memory of us sliding along the back seat as she worked her way through corners. That was Africa, mind, where things are a tad looser.

These days, however, child car restraints are serious business and well they should be. Land transport accidents are the leading cause of child deaths in Australia and many lives can be saved if a suitable, well-fitted baby or child seat is used.  

As with most things that face new parents, baby and child restraint laws can be confusing. Until 2010, many States and Territories had differing rules when it came to restraining children safely in a motor vehicle, but the National Child Restraint Laws have cleared up some of the grey areas.

By law, any child under the age of seven travelling in a private vehicle must be safely and securely fastened in a child seat that is correctly fitted and adjusted to their height and size and meets Australian/New Zealand Standard AS/NZS1754.

Children between the age of seven and 16 must be restrained in either a forward facing child seat, a booster seat or use an adult lap-sash seat belt.

Restraints manufactured to the latest Australian Standard (2010) are rated by height only instead of weight and height as had previously been the case. These shoulder height markers are important in guiding the adjustment of your child’s car restraint and whether they are ready to make the move to the next seat.

Usually, baby and child seats are placed in either a rear or forward facing position and are available as a convertible seat which has an in-built harness and can be used in either position or a combination seat that can be used as a forward-facing seat with an inbuilt harness and then as a booster seat with a lap-sash belt as your child grows older.

Although it is tempting to save money by buying a second-hand child car restraint, safety experts advise that it is not safe to use restraints that are more than 10 years old or have been in an accident and stress the importance of only buying a second-hand car seat from someone you know well. Check the seat for stress marks on the shell and ensure the straps and buckles are in good working order.

Newborn to six months baby seat laws

Babies under six months must use a rearward facing seat with a minimum five-point in-built harness. This helps protect the baby’s head and neck in the event of a crash. Road safety experts tend to migrate towards a single purpose capsule option both for comfort and function but a seat that can be both rear and forward-facing will also work well. Single purpose capsules can be hired from private stores and government organisations if you don’t want to invest in one of your own. Adjust the straps to ensure your baby fits as snugly as possible and make sure the straps are not twisted. The straps of the harness must be level with or above your child’s shoulders.

It is recommended that baby and child seat restraints are professionally fitted by an authorised fitting station. Babies that outgrow their capsules (usually around six months) can be transferred to a seat for children aged six months – four years. It is best, however, that this seat remains in the rearward facing position until your child is at least 12 months old. Remember that rearward facing seats or capsules cannot be installed in a front seat if the car is fitted with a passenger airbag.

Six months to four years car seat laws

Children that are under 12 months of age should be kept in a rearward-facing seat for their safety despite how strong you think their head and necks are unless of course they are too big for it. The Australian Standard now uses height, rather than height and weight, as a marker for the most appropriate child restraint and experts suggest you keep your child in a rearward-facing seat until his or her shoulders are above the top shoulder height marker.

Once your child is ready you can turn the seat around which will no doubt open up a whole new world for him. He can stay in this seat until he has reached the maximum shoulder height marker for the restraint which is usually around four years old. All children are different though so it may be that taller kids will outgrow this restraint faster.

Check to see that the restraint is securely attached to the seat through the seat belt, has the top tether strap attached and has a minimum five-point harness. Newer cars have ISOFIX anchorage points which makes installing a car seat so much easier. ISOFIX-compatible car seats, which meet Australian Standards are now available for purchase here. Using ISOFIX seats bought while overseas or from overseas companies is illegal.

Remember that children under the age of four cannot travel in the front seat of a private car with two or more rows. 

Four years to seven years car seat laws

In some ways this is the easiest stage of using a child car restraint as your littlies can get into their seats and buckle up on their own. Checking that their harnesses have actually clicked into place is a must though.

Children over the age of four must be ensconced safely in an approved forward-facing seat with an inbuilt harness or an approved tethered booster seat restrained by an adult lap-sash seat belt. Try to keep your child in a forward-facing seat for as long as he fits in it before moving him to a booster as this will be safest for him.

Many forward-facing child restraints convert into booster seats when your child is ready and all you have to do is remove the inbuilt harness straps. Single-purpose booster seats are often a more favoured option and, they too, must offer head and side impact protection.

Good booster seats have adjustable head restraints so they can grow with your child. The car’s adult lap-sash seatbelt is used to secure booster seats in place.

The lap part of the belt must sit low across the top of your child’s thighs while the sash belt must lie across the centre of his or her shoulder. Choose a booster seat with an anti-submarining clip as it will help hold the lap part of the belt low on your child’s hips and help prevent him from sliding under the seatbelt in the event of a crash.

Booster cushions (without a back) were removed from the Australian Child Restraint Standard in 2010 and are not recommended for use because they do not offer side or head protection in a crash. Integrated booster seats which have already been built into the car, like those found in the Volvo XC90, are legally allowed in Victoria for children over four years old.

Children aged between four and seven should not sit in the front seat unless all other seats in the second and third rows are being used by younger children in a suitable child restraint.

Seven years and older

Once they have had their seventh birthday, children are not legally expected to use a child car restraint and will be champing at the bit to hop in and out of the car like a ‘big kid’.

The thing is, however, that adult seat belts are designed for a minimum height of 145cm, a height few kids reach before their 10th birthdays. Children who are too short for an adult seat belt usually have the lap part of the seat belt across their tummies which can cause serious injury in an accident.

Road safety experts recommend that children use booster seats until at least 10 years of age provided they still fit in it. 

It is natural and common for children in this age group to want to sit in the front passenger seat. While it is legal to do so, the National Child Restraint Guidelines recommends that children under 12 years of age are safest in the rear seat unless they are travelling in a single row vehicle.

There is a five-step test to help you determine whether your child is ready to move from a booster seat to an adult seatbelt:

  1. Can your child sit flush with the back of the seat?
  2. Do your child’s knees bend comfortably over the edge of the seat?
  3. Does the sash part of the belt sit across the middle of the shoulder rather than the neck or arm?
  4. Is the lap part of the belt sitting low across the hip bones touching the thighs?
  5. Can your child sit in position with sliding down for the whole trip?

Children with additional needs

Some children have physical and mental health conditions that may exempt them from child car restraint laws.

In some cases, these children require modified child restraints or special accessories. These modifications and any associated accessories must be made by a health care professional.

If modifications are needed, the child car restraint will no longer meet legal requirements so you will need an exemption. More information on this process is available from your road safety authority.

Buses, taxis and ride-sharing

Children travelling on buses (12 seats or more) are not legally required to use a child restraint or booster seat but it is recommended that you do so if possible.

In all States and Territories with the exception of New South Wales, children can travel in a taxi without a child restraint if one is unavailable.

Children under 12 months must sit in the back seat on an adult’s lap without sharing a seat belt while those from one year to seven years of age must sit in the back seat and must be restrained by a seat belt as best as possible.

In NSW, children under one year must use a child car restraint in a taxi. Consider taking your child’s own car seat in a taxi or ask for a taxi with a child car restraint when booking your car.

Ride-sharing services, limousines and chauffeured vehicles are regarded as private vehicles so children must always be in an approved, suitable child car restraint until they can wear an adult seat belt safely (145cm).

Some ride-sharing services provide a car seat for a surcharge but they can refuse service on pick-up if you don’t have one on hand.

Have you had trouble with child restraints before? Tell us your experience in the comments below.