Child seats and fittings

Key facts

  • In 2015, 11 children under the age of 12 years old were killed while travelling in cars in Great Britain, 200 were seriously injured and there were 5,093 child casualties (reported to the police) in total. [1]
  • A study of Thames Valley and Hampshire revealed that in 2014 the number of children unrestrained in both the front passenger seat and rear passenger seats were lower than in 2008/9; [2]
  • Properly restrained infants are on average 12.7 times less likely to present to a trauma centre following a motor vehicle crash [3];
  • In the event of a crash, rear-facing child seats can reduce the likelihood of death and injury in young children and small infants by up to 90% [4];
  • As of March 2017 manufacturers are not allowed to develop booster cushions or backless booster seats for children shorter than 125 cm or weighing less than 22kg, parents that have already purchased booster seats matching these specifications can continue to use them for their child [5].

Introduction

In 2015, 19 children under the age of 15 were killed while travelling in cars in Great Britain and 315 were seriously injured [6].

When a child is present in a moving road vehicle it is essential that the appropriate child restraints are used. Children are one of the most vulnerable road users, no matter how they travel. Their undeveloped frames are open to more severe injuries and ill-prepared to absorb the violent crash forces of a vehicular impact. Appropriate child restraints are designed to distribute crash forces with minimal damage to the soft tissues, cradle the vulnerable head and neck of the child and restrict their movement during and after impact.

Child restraints are a vital passive safety system and their effect cannot be underestimated. In 2015, a study of Thames Valley Police Authority and Hampshire Constabulary indicated that the percentage of child passengers unrestrained within a vehicle on the road had actually increased between 2008/9 and 2014 in the front and rear passenger seats [7].

It is important that the public are aware of the danger that children are in if they are not using the appropriate restraints, fitted correctly within the vehicle. An adult seat belt is not designed to protect a child. Using a properly fitted child restraint that is appropriate for the child’s size and weight reduces the risk of fatalities, and can prevent the most serious injuries in many situations [8].

Find out more: Read our advice for drivers on belting up and choosing safer vehicles.

Legal framework

In the United Kingdom, drivers are legally responsible for making sure that all passengers in their vehicle under the age of 14 are appropriately restrained. Children under the age of 12, or below 135 cm tall, are not allowed to use an adult seat belt without ‘additional restraints’ (child seats, booster chairs and booster cushions), except under legally ‘exceptional’ circumstances. [9]

Brake and other road safety professionals, strongly advise that drivers and parents ensure that all children under 150 cm tall use proper child restraints, as we believe that adult seat belts do not provide sufficient protection to children below this height [10].

Exceptions to the legal requirement for child restraints in moving road vehicles include [11]:

  • Taxis, hire cars and mini buses: When the child is travelling in a taxi, hire car or mini bus and a travel seat is unavailable the child is not require to wear an appropriate restraint. However. If a child-seat is fitted within the vehicle it should be used.
  • Unexpected journeys: There are legal exemptions for short, unexpected but necessary journeys – for example an emergency hospital visit. This exemption is only applicable if the child is over the age of three and there are no correct child restraints available. If the child is under the age of three they cannot legally travel in the vehicle without appropriate child restraints.
  • Emergency vehicles: Children can travel in emergency service vehicles, such as police cars and ambulances, without using child restraints if appropriate restraints are not available.

Regulating child restraints

Child seat development and classification is primarily legally controlled by United Nations ECE Regulation No.44 and the more recent United Nations ECE regulation No.129, introduced in 2013. Each of these regulations specify standards that both child restraints and the vehicles they are placed in must adhere to, to ensure children using the restraint are to remain secure and protected when on the move.

Currently, only EU-approved child car seats can be used in the UK, recognisable by the capital ‘E’ label in in a circle fixed to the product. This regulation will undoubtedly be affected by the UK’s decision to leave the European Union in 2017, and it is important that safeguards are put in place to ensure that child restraints maintain a high standard of protection [12].

UN ECE Regulation 44 [13]

This legislation stipulates that child restraints should be approved to a required technical standard, based on the child’s height and weight as opposed to age. It sets out general specifications for child seats, the criteria for type approval and frontal crash testing and the product approval process and qualifications.

The regulation specifically requires all road vehicles to be fitted with a pair of ISOFIX ‘anchorages’ to be installed in vehicles, designed to withstand a static load of 8 kN (KiloNewtons) without deforming.

Read more: On ISOFIX systems below.

UN ECE Regulation 129 (i-Size) [14]

In 2013 UN ECE 129, known as the ‘i-Size’ legislation, was introduced to run parallel with Regulation 44, introducing two important changes to child seat legislation.

First, child restraints under the i-Size legislation are classified according to the height of a child as opposed to the weight. This was based on the assessment that it would be a more effective means of assessing the degree of protection a child seat would provide children, whose height can vary and may not always relate to their weight.

Second, the i-Size regulation requires children to travel in rear-facing child seats for longer, and these restraints can be used by parents of any age of child within the height boundaries of the product. These seats must be used for any child under 83 cm tall (typically around 15 months old). As rear-facing child seats have been proven to be safer, Regulation 129 has been a welcome development [15].

Currently, the ‘i-Size’ child seats will only fit in approved vehicles, the number of which will increase over the coming years. Eventually they will become available for all types of child seat. Brake recommends parents purchase seats meeting i-Size regulations if these are available for their vehicle.

Additional restrictions introduced include the requirement that forward-facing child restraints will not be designed to accommodate a stature below 71 cm and a convertible seat in rear-facing configuration must accommodate children up to 83cm tall.

This legislation has also introduced a requirement for these child seats to be evaluated in side-impact tests, using more advanced crash dummies that take the fragility of the child into account. A study into the new testing criteria found that analysis is now more closely focussed on the level of protection provided for the most vulnerable regions of a young child’s body in a road crash, the head/neck, abdomen and chest. [16]

ISOFIX

The ISOFIX is a system, developed in the 1990s, provides purpose-built latches in new vehicles to enable child restraint systems to be affixed in a manner that prevents incorrect fitting and the consequences that can emerge as a result. It is widely regarded as the safest option for child restraints, and UN ECE Regulation 44 clearly specifies that ISOFIX connectors must be able to withstand a static force of 8kN [17]. 

However, a recent report from the European Council, assessing the benefits and feasibility of new technologies and the measures in place for vehicle occupant safety, highlights a problem with the ISOFIX system. The report questions whether the static load requirements of the ISOFIX is appropriate to ensure the safety of the child, as the regulations fail to consider the dynamic load rating (the level of impact force) a vehicle could experience during a crash. As a result, it is difficult to determine if the technology designed to reduce the impact of a road crash on the fragile body of a child, would adequately protect a heavier child in those situations. [18]

The EC report endorses increasing the ISOFIX anchorage strength in vehicles, possibly to 9kN or 11kN, as the most cost-beneficial solution. A decision that could prevent parents from prematurely switching their children from child seats to booster seats and the injuries that can accompany this in the event of a road crash. [19]

Although it has been a requirement for all new cars to have ISOFIX anchor points fitted, models purchased or developed before 2013 still do not have the required fittings. This accounts for many of the cars currently on the roads in the UK. [20]

Types of child restraint

There are a range of child restraint systems available, each appropriate for different sizes and weights, the legal standard for child seat labelling. Studies have shown that choosing child restraints on the basis of age is dangerous, as children do not experience growth at the same rate and two children of the same age can be markedly different in terms of height and weight [21].

The decision on which child restraint to choose should not be rushed, instead it should be carefully based on how appropriate the restraint is and whether it complies with UN legislation.

More information on the types of child restraint currently on the market is available below:

Rear-facing child seats

Rear-facing child restraints are commonly used for children weighing between 0-13kg, preferred by parents of very young or small children to ensure their safety in a moving vehicle [22]. Research suggests that rear-facing seats reduce the risk of death or injury in a crash by up to 90% [23].

These restraint systems are increasingly being equipped to carry older children following the introduction of the I-Size restraint [24].

If a rear-facing child seat is fitted in the front passenger seat it is vitally important that that the driver checks if there is a front passenger seat air bag, and if there is that it is disabled. If an airbag deploys with a rear-facing child restraint in that seat, it is likely that this will result in catastrophic head injuries for the child and could kill them. If the air bag for the front passenger seat cannot be switched off, rear-facing child seats MUST be placed in the rear passenger seats of the vehicle [25].

Rear-facing child seats are generally grouped into three categories, relating to the height or weight of the child [26]:

  • Group 0: Rear-facing child restraints classed as ‘Group 0’ are suitable for children weighing 0-10kg, a figure generally understood to be appropriate for new-born children up until the age of 6-9 months. However, this is not always the case and it is important that parents purchase a car seat on the basis of weight or height, not age, which can be inaccurate.
  • Group +0: Rear-facing child restraints identified as ‘Group +0’ are systems designed to support and protect children weighing between 0-13kg.
  • I-Size: The rear-facing ‘I-size’ restraints determine suitability based on the height of the child as opposed to their weight. I-Size child restraints were developed in response to UN ECE Regulation 129 and are designed to fit in any car. This system is seen by many road safety professionals as the most appropriate way of matching a child to a restraint as parents in particular are more likely to be aware of their child’s height rather than their weight.  

Forward-facing child seats [27]

Forward-facing child seats, also known as Group 1 child seats, are suitable for children weighing between 9-18kg. This is typically understood as referring to children between the ages of 10 months and three to four years old.

Forward-facing child restraints integrate a ‘five-point seatbelt’ to protect the child within the vehicle. Some of these seats are capable of being fitted in both the front passenger seat and the rear passenger seats, however, if the child restraint is fitted in the front of the vehicle, the passenger air bag (if present) MUST be switched off.

Combination seats [28]

These are car seats that can be both forward and rearward facing. Group 0+ and 1 can be used for children weighing between 0-18 kg and Group 0+, 1 and 2 are appropriate for children weighing from 0-25kg.

High-backed booster seats [29]

High-backed booster seats are designed to be suitable for children weighing between 15-25kg, typically aged 4-6 years. Older children can use booster seats, or booster cushions, and those designed for older children (Group 1, 2 and 3) can carry children weighing 9-36kg.

These seats allow the use of the vehicle’s existing three-point seat belt to secure the child safely. Booster seats have a back and provide side protection, giving greater protection if the vehicle is in a side-on collision.

Booster cushions

These are suitable for children 22-36 kg, typically aged 10-12 years. These are cushions that enable the vehicle’s fitted three-point seatbelt to fit across the child’s hips and shoulders. They don’t have the back and sides of a booster seat. [30]

Remember: As of March 2017, new laws will be implemented that prevent manufacturers from developing booster cushions and backless booster seats for use by children shorter than 125cm or weighing less than 22kg [31].

These new regulations will not affect existing models of booster seats, and those currently in use that meet the pre-2017 standards can still be used. [32]

According to TRL, one of the main reasons for this change in regulation is “to ensure that in side impact, a child is either protected by the child restraint or the vehicle restraint system… children under 125cm…will not be positioned in such a way that the vehicle can provide protection and therefore this role must be fulfilled by the child restraint”. [33]

Parents should pay close attention to manufacturer’s labels and instructions when purchasing a booster seat, ensuring that it is appropriate for the child’s height and weight and adheres to the new legislation.

Take action: See our campaign pages and find out how you can get involved.

Fitting child restraints

Child passengers in crashes are far more likely to be killed or seriously injured if the child is not properly restrained in their child seat. Problems in fitting the restraints include loose straps, and children being placed in a restraint too large for them. The ISOFIX system is an attempt to prevent the child restraint being incorrectly fitted within the vehicle and evidence suggests that they have largely been successful in doing this. [34]

A study in 2014 assessed US crash data from collisions involving child car passengers over a five year period. The report found that that properly restrained infants were 12.7 times less likely to present to a trauma centre after a motor vehicle crash. However, the likelihood of traumatic brain injuries in infants involved in a high speed crash was similar among properly restrained and improperly restrained infants. Clearly indicating that effective restraint systems are one aspect of a wider system, and if children are to travel safely we must have safer roads, safer vehicles and safer drivers. [35]  


End notes

[1] Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: Annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016
[2] The effectiveness of roads policing strategies, TRL, 2015
[3] Stewart, C. et al., Infant car safety seats and risk of head injury, 2014
[4] Jakkobson, L. et al. Safety for the Growing Child – Experiences from Swedish accident data, 2005
[5] New child car seats, Department for Transport, 2017
[6] Reported Road Casualties Great Britain: Annual report 2015, Department for Transport, 2016
[7] The effectiveness of roads policing strategies, TRL, 2015
[8] Elvik R et al., The handbook of road safety measures, (2nd ed.), 2009
[9] Seat belts: the law, gov.uk, updated 2016
[10] Ibid
[11] Ibid
[10] Regulation No 44 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UN/ECE) — Uniform provisions concerning the approval of restraining devices for child occupants of powerdriven vehicles (‘Child Restraint Systems’), United Nations, 2010
[11] Uniform provisions concerning the approval of enhanced Child Restraint Systems used on board of motor vehicles (ECRS), United Nations Economic Commission for Europe Regulation 129
[12] Child car seats: the law, Department for Transport, 2017
[13] Regulation No 44 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UN/ECE): Uniform provisions concerning the approval of restraining devices for child occupants of power-driven vehicles (‘Child Restraint Systems’), United Nations, 2010
[14] Regulation No 129 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UN/ECE) — Uniform provisions concerning the approval of enhanced Child Restraint Systems used on board of motor vehicles (ECRS), European Commission, 2014
[15] UN Regulation 129 Increasing the safety of children in vehicles: For policy-makers and concerned citizens, UNECE, 2016
[16] Cuerden, R. et al., New UN regulation on child restraint systems – assessment of amendments to the new regulation, front and side impact procedures and Q-Series dummy family injury criteria: Final report, TRL, 2014
[17] Regulation No 44 of the Economic Commission for Europe of the United Nations (UN/ECE): Uniform provisions concerning the approval of restraining devices for child occupants of power-driven vehicles (‘Child Restraint Systems’), European Commission, 2010
[18] Hynd, D. et al, Benefit and Feasibility of a Range of New Technologies and Unregulated Measures in the fields of Vehicle Occupant Safety and Protection of Vulnerable Road Users Final report, European Commission, European Commission, 2015
[19] Ibid
[20] End of life vehicles: average vehicle age, SMMT, 2016
[21] Cuerden, R. et al., New UN regulation on child restraint systems – assessment of amendments to the new regulation, front and side impact procedures and Q-Series dummy family injury criteria: Final report, TRL, 2014
[22] Vehicles: Child restraint systems, the Road Safety Observatory, 2015
[23] Jakkobson, L. et al. Safety for the Growing Child – Experiences from Swedish accident data, 2005
[24] UN Regulation 129 Increasing the safety of children in vehicles: For policy-makers and concerned citizens, UNECE, 2016
[25] The Highway Code: seatbelts and child restraints (Rule 101), Department for Transport, 2016
[26] Vehicles: Child restraint systems, the Road Safety Observatory, 2015
[27] Ibid
[28] Ibid
[29] Ibid
[30] Ibid
[31] New child car seats, Department for Transport, 2017
[32] Ibid
[33] Robinson, T., Shining a light on the impending changes to car seat legislation, TRL, 2016
[34] Hynd, D. et al, Benefit and Feasibility of a Range of New Technologies and Unregulated Measures in the fields of Vehicle Occupant Safety and Protection of Vulnerable Road Users Final report, European Commission, 2015
[35] Stewart, C. et al., Infant car safety seats and risk of head injury, 2014

Page updated: March 2017