What to consider when purchasing a car seat

According to the Medical Research Council, car passenger deaths are the fourth leading cause of unnatural fatality in children in South Africa. Alina Hardcastle chats to experts about how to ensure your child’s safety on the road and what parents should consider when purchasing a child car seat.

South African law on car safety

Statistically it has been found that a car seat can reduce the chance of death in an infant by 71% and a toddler by 64%. The Road Traffic Act stipulates that children under the age of three must be in the appropriate and correctly certified car seat. Despite the implementation of this law; research released by the Automobile Association found that less than 7% of South African drivers put their children in the required seats.

Mandy Lee Miller, creator and director of car seat awareness initiative #CarseatFullstop, explains that physically, a child cannot travel safely in a car without additional support until he/she is over 1.5m tall (between the age of 10 and 12 years old). “A seat belt is designed to fit an adult male over the height of 1.5m tall. For anybody smaller, the seat belt is an additional danger.”

If your child isn’t in a seat, not only are you putting their lives in more risk but you are also opening yourself up to losing your money. Brent Grüng, head of marketing at Born Fabulous, warns that traffic officers are able to fine parents who fail to comply with this law.

What to look out for when purchasing a car seat

So, with your child safety a paramount importance, what should you look for in a baby car seat? Peggie Mars from Wheel Well says that South Africa adheres to the European Economic Community (ECE) regulations. “You know that a seat complies if it has the orange ECE sticker on the back. This sticker serves as an ID document of the seat and must give you all the relevant information on weight group and installation method of the seat.”

Types of seats

You’ll also need to consider what type of car seat your child needs. Mars explains that car seats are divided into four groups and that each group addresses the specific development needs of the infant/child at a particular stage. The groups are:

  • Infant seats (Group 0 and 0+): These are for babies from birth to nine or 13 Kgs and are rear facing. This is designed to cocoon the baby in a recycling position until their neck and back muscles are more developed.
  • Toddler seats (Group 1): These are for children from nine to 18Kgs and can be rear or forward facing. This provides the right amount of protection by harnessing the child in the car with a five point harness.
  • Full back booster seats (Group 2): These are used by children that have outgrown the toddler seat in length and weight. A child must be at least four years old to be in seat like this. The full back booster seat does not have a harness, but positions the adult seat belt correctly on the smaller body of the child.
  • Booster cushion (Group 3): This is a seat used in those final years before a child is 1.5m tall. The main function of the seat is to position the lap belt low on the top of the legs and keep it away from the vital organs and tummy area.

Mars explains that you can get seats that combine two or more groups, but advises that parents should be very careful with a combination seat as you may lose vital safety benefits for an extended period of use.  Also keep in mind that the seats offer less protection as they move up each stage.

Miller adds that there are three distinct markets to look out for when purchasing a car seat, in the four distinct groups stated above, which she refers to as “top three”, this BeSafe, Volvo and MaxiCosi; the mid-tier seats, such as the Joie and Graco. And then the more affordable seats, Safeway, Chelino, and Chicco. “There are a ton of different brands available; those are just an overview of the more popular ones.”

How do car seats differ from one another?

Mars explains that child car seats differ from each other in three ways:

  • Baby seats start off at a flat angle and the seats get progressively upright as the child grows and the spine matures.
  • Baby seats are always rear facing, toddler seats can be rear and forward facing and booster seats are always forward facing.
  • The protection offered by the seat decreases in every stage, but your child grows in body strength and the skeleton matures to compensate.

In regards to the different types of brands, Miller expresses that any seat is better than no seat; and that car seats differ much the same way as cars do. “There is a difference in a seat that is designed, built and tested privately and extensively (the top 3), as compared to the seats that are purchased in China and then covered and branded by the individual brands. In the same way that a Volvo is one of the safest cars in the world, but a Cherry is a lovely small car that will get you where you need to go; a MaxiCosi car seat has been privately crash tested 800 times before it reaches the market, but a Safeway seat is solid and has been tested and found to be a safe and reliable seat.”

The costs of a car seat

Grüng says that well-made baby seats with the correct global and South African standards rating start at R2000 and can go up to R8000 depending on the brand.

Miller says the costs on average in the markets are as follows:

  • “The top three”: R4000-R12000
  • Mid-tier: R3000-R5000
  • Affordable: R1000 –R2500

Questions to ask when purchasing a child car seat

Experts advise that you ask the following questions when purchasing a child car seat:

  • Is the car seat appropriate for the developmental stage that your child is at? (Infant, Toddler, Booster seat)
  • Does the seat fit properly in your car? Are the seat belts long enough to get around the seat, if you use a rear-facing toddler seat, is there enough space between the seat and the passenger seat? If in doubt, ask someone in the store to fit it in your car so you can evaluate whether the seat suits it.
  • Does the seat have Expanded Polystyrene foam (EPS) throughout? (EPS absorbs energy at the point of impact, the more EPS the safer the seat.)
  • Does the seat have a five point harness?
  • How long can the seat face rear?
  • Does the seat have its ECE certification?
  • What are the awards held by the seat?
  • How easy is it to install? Most car seats are not installed correctly; internationally the number used is four out of five car seats are incorrectly installed. If the seat isn’t installed exactly as per the manual, the safety is compromised.
  • Is my child ready to be moved to the new car seat? You should only promote your child to the next size up when they have reached the height and weight limit on the orange sticker on the side of every legal car seat.

Where to place the car seat

Mars explains that the safest place is the middle of the back seat, but if you don’t get good installation there, the next best thing is behind the passenger seat. The passenger seat in front is no go for children due to the airbag which is designed to keep a belted adult in the correct seating position, but can kill children. Grüng adds that should you use the front seat; ensure the airbag has been switched off.

Final thoughts

Mars concludes that car seats are highly engineered safety equipment that must keep children safe if a car accident was to occur. “Do not take it lightly. Do your research, ask the questions and consider your options before you purchase.”

Donate your child’s car seat

If your kids have outgrown their car seats, donate them to Wheel Well. This initiative collects children’s car seats and makes sure that they are in good repair before distributing them to less fortunate families. If you have a car seat that you would like donate or require a seat, contact Peggie Mars on 0723857121 or email at peggie@wheelwell.co.za .

To find out more about #CarseatFullstop, click here, or visit their social media page.

For information about Born Fabulous and Wheel well, click here and here.