Children’s car seats have a reputation for being difficult to understand and install, but this doesn’t have to be the case.
We understand the importance of keeping your youngest passengers safe on the road, so we've partnered with child passenger safety advocates SitTight to help make sure everyone has all the information they need to keep children safe in and around vehicles.
NZ Car Seat Law
NZ Car Seat Law can seem complicated, but it’s quite simple.
Any child in New Zealand, up until their 7th birthday, must be in an appropriate child restraint.
Once a child has reached 8 years old, they are no longer required by law to use a child restraint.
Height vs Age
While the law deals in ages, most 7 & 8 year-olds are not tall enough for a vehicle seat belt to properly fit them, and this is when “best practice” comes into play. To improve safety for the child, it is best practice to keep a child in a car seat, i.e. a booster, until they are 148cm tall. This is the height at which a vehicle seat belt should safely fit across a child’s shoulder and hips as intended. A child may not reach this height until 10-12 years of age, or older. In this case, keeping a child in a booster until they reach this age is considered best practice.
The Importance of a Secure Car Seat Installation
Is your child’s car seat installed securely?
One of the main jobs a car seat has to do is reduce the movement of a child in a crash. It needs to stop the child from moving as quickly and as safely as possible.
A crash at 50km/h creates the same force as if you fell out of the third floor of a building.
If you can move a car seat with your hand, imagine what the force of a crash would do to it. It must be secure.
How can you check?
There’s a simple test to do to be sure a child restraint is secure. Hold it next to where it’s connected to the vehicle and pull it side to side. Does it move more than 2.5cm?
If the answer is yes, it’s not securely installed.
Using the “2.5cm rule” gives you a simple, precise measurement to use. This is not a lot of movement so, don’t be surprised if you find your car seat is not secure enough. Over 80% of car seats in New Zealand are not installed securely.
It’s not uncommon to have trouble getting a car seat secure. Your instruction manual should guide you as to how to install your child restraint securely but if this is not clear and you need help doing so, make contact with your local child restraint technician who can offer knowledge, support and expertise.
Using a Car Seat Correctly
Using a child restraint correctly plays a vital role in keeping your children safe in your vehicle. To do so, you must use a car seat in line with its manufacturer’s instructions.Your car seat’s instruction manual will give you all you need to know to be sure you are using it safely, and in a way that offers your child the most protection possible. Among other things, a restraint’s manual will tell you what weight and/or height and/or aged child can use it safely, as well as all sorts of other information which detail how it should be set up and used correctly. You must follow these instructions to make sure your car seat is installed and used as it has been designed.If you have any questions about your car seat, and whether you are using it correctly, you can contact SitTight, or your local child restraint technician, who will be able to guide you.
Back Seat is Best
Why is the back seat the safest position for a child to travel?
When deciding where a child should sit, it makes the most sense to seat them away from the areas of the vehicle that are most likely to be impacted in a crash.
Statistics, and common sense, tell us that frontal crashes are one of the most common types of collision. Therefore, seating a child in the back keeps them away from this point of danger and reduces their risk of injury. Frontal airbags also add a significant risk to children travelling in the front seat.
If we follow this logic even further, it leads to the centre back seat being the position which is farthest from any crash point on the vehicle. For this reason, the centre rear seat is often considered the “safest” place in a vehicle. When installing child restraints, it’s important to know that there are often reasons why these can’t be installed in the centre back seat. If you plan to install your child restraint in this position, check the restraint’s instruction manual to make sure you can do so in line with its manufacturer’s instructions, and your vehicle manual to check any guidelines or rules regarding child restraint installation.
When seating a child, or installing a child restraint, keep in mind how close your smallest passengers are to parts of the vehicle which, in a crash, are most often hit. By seating them away from these areas, you are helping to give them the most protection you can.
The Importance of Rear-Facing
Why is it considered necessary for young children to travel rear-facing?
The short answer to this is that it offers vital support to a child’s head, neck and spine. The effects of injuries which are caused by trauma to the head, neck and spine can be severe and long-lasting. Having children travel rear-facing reduces the risk of them suffering these types of injuries.
Let’s explore this further as it helps to understand how this is the case.
Collisions that take place at the front of the vehicle, in other words, “frontal crashes”, are one of the most common types of crash. In a frontal collision, the force driven through the vehicle is immense. When a frontal crash occurs, everything in the vehicle moves at great force towards the front. This includes a child in a car seat.
When a child travels in a rear-facing seat, in a frontal crash, they are immediately forced into the back of their child restraint. Their entire body, from head to toe, is supported by their car seat. This support means that when their body is absorbing the initial, most intense force from the crash, their head, neck and spine stay safely in alignment.
Now imagine if a child was travelling in a forward-facing position when a frontal crash happened. When the intense, initial force occurs, and it drives the child’s body towards the front of the vehicle, there is nothing to support their head, neck and spine, or to stop their head moving forward. The strain on their spine generated by the force of their head moving forward is immense.
For this reason, it is best practice to keep a child rear-facing until they have outgrown the rear-facing limits of their child restraint, or as close to four as possible. Most recent common practice has suggested rear-facing until at least 2 years old, however it is safest to continue far beyond this. By allowing a child to reach the rear-facing limits on their child restraint, you are maximising their time in a position which offers essential protection to their head, neck and spine in the event of an accident.
Bent Legs In Rear-Facing Seats
Are you wondering if your child’s bent legs in their rear-facing seat are uncomfortable? You can relax knowing that it is unlikely that this is the case. But let’s look into it further. It’s useful to start by remembering why a child is in a rear-facing position.
It’s safer for a child to travel rear-facing as it provides vital support to their head, neck and spine in a crash.
When we see a child sitting in a rear-facing seat with their legs bent, as adults, we consider what that would feel like for us. It may well be uncomfortable for an adult to sit in that position for a while, but children are not small adults. Their bone structure is different, and they are far more flexible than we are. So they will not feel the same effects as an adult would when sitting in that position.
Some children rear-face until they are 5-6 years old. At this age, they can communicate if they are uncomfortable or not, and this is very rarely the case. It doesn’t make sense to do this, especially when it is unlikely they are uncomfortable in the first place.
It’s best practice to keep children rear-facing until they have outgrown the rear-facing limits of their child restraint.
The purpose of a child restraint is to stop a child’s movement in a crash as safely as possible.
A snug harness plays a key role in enabling the car seat to do this.
Your child’s harness must fit against them snugly. Think “Snug like a hug”! If the harness is too loose against your child, their body can easily come loose from the harness, and be mostly unrestrained during the crash.
It’s simple to check if your child’s harness is secure enough, by using the “pinch test”. At your child’s shoulder, try to pinch the harness in an up & down movement (not side to side). If you can pinch any harness between your fingers, the harness is too loose.
Many parents and caregivers do not have their child’s harness tight enough. Ensuring your child’s harness is snug, could be the difference between your child staying safely in their child restraint or experiencing the uncontrolled forces of a crash.
When harnessing a child into their seat follow these key pointers:
Push their bum back into the restraint
Ensure they’re sitting centralised
Click into the crotch buckle
Pull up on the harness straps to remove all the slack around the hips and thighs (this part is often missed and leads to a loose harness)
Pull the harness adjuster to tighten harness
‘If’ you have a chest clip – click this together and then position in line with the child’s armpits.
For a child, always remember that a harness should always feel “Snug like a hug” and “that’s pretty tight!”
Have you been doing your child harness tight enough?
Harness & Head Height
Have you noticed that a lot of seats advertise a weight and/or height limit which is used as a guide to consider how long your child will use the seat for?
The reasonable assumption is made by parents that their child will be able to use the seat at the entry requirements and until they reach the max weight and/or height. However, there are other limits to be aware of in addition to these – and often children reach these other limits well before they reach either the seat’s weight or height limit.
The other factors to consider are:
Where does the harness sit on your child’s shoulders? And how does this compare with the car seat’s rules? Check your instruction manual to confirm what is allowed – can the harness be “even with”, “above” or “below” your child’s shoulders?
Check how your child’s head lines up with the shell or headrest of the seat. The general rules are:
Rear-Facing – ensure your child’s head is at least 2.5cm lower than the top of the seat shell.
Forward-Facing – check that your child’s ears do not come above the top of the seat.
These two measurements, the head and harness heights, are often reached well before a child reaches the weight or height limits of a seat, so being aware these are important.
Whichever limit is reached first is the one that tells you your child has outgrown the seat. Why not check yours now?
Avoid Bulky Clothing
It’s that time of year again, when we are thinking about keeping our little ones cosy and warm by wrapping them up in warm clothing.
It’s important to know that having a child wrapped up in bulky clothing when harnessed into a car seat can stop it from keeping them as safe as possible, so you should always consider what your child is wearing before doing up their harness.
For a harness to do its job correctly it needs to fit snug against the child’s body.
Bulky clothing such as winter jackets, puffy onesies and big woollen knits are items that are full of air and no matter how tight you pull a harness, you cannot get all the air out of the clothing to ensure the harness is as tight as it needs to be. Crash forces can easily crumple steel on the vehicle which means it can also easily push the air out of clothing. This creates excess slack under a child’s harness and increases the chance of them sliding out in a car crash.
It is therefore recommended to:
Accessorise with a hat, mittens and socks
Then place a blanket OVER the top of their harness to keep them warm. If a clothing item is too bulky – remove it.
Our ultimate goal is to have them warm, comfortable AND safe.
Booster Seat Safety
Your child is likely to be in a booster seat for at least as long, if not longer, than they will be in a harnessed seat, so making the right choice is vital.
A booster seat is designed to position the adult-sized seat belt in the correct locations over a child’s body. Boosters work by positioning the lap portion of the vehicle seat belt low on the child’s hips, contacting both the hips and thighs. Boosters also align the shoulder portion of the vehicle seat belt on the child’s shoulder, ideally placing the seat belt flat and snug across the collarbone. These are the areas which have strong bones and can withstand more force than other, softer areas of a child’s body.
New Zealand law states that a child must use a child restraint until they are 7 years old, but this is not a magic age at which a child is tall enough to safely fit a vehicle seat belt. Vehicle belts are designed to fit a person safely when they are 148cm tall, or taller. So a child should continue to use a booster seat until they reach this height, regardless of their age. This means your child may still use a booster seat at 10-12 years old. This is safest and what we consider best practice.
If a child who is not tall enough sits on a vehicle seat without a booster, the belt will cross their neck and abdomen. These areas are soft with no bone structure so injuries caused by a seat belt can be severe and the effects long-lasting.
There are two types of booster seats available in New Zealand. A booster seat with a full back, and a half booster, which is just the seat.
A seatbelt used on its own can contribute to a child’s injuries rather than prevent them so keep your child in a booster seat until the adult-sized seat belt fits them safely. If in doubt, remember the rhyme – it’s safer to wait until 148! (cm).
5 Step Test
Are you wondering if your child is ready to travel without a booster seat? There is a simple 5-step test you can do to help you make this decision.
1. Sit the child on the vehicle seat with their back against the seat.
2. In this position, their knees should bend at the edge of the vehicle seat.
3. The sash part of the seat belt should sit in the middle of their shoulder, away from their neck.
4. The lap section of the belt should sit at the top of their thighs, across their hips.
5. You child should be able to sit comfortably in this position, without slouching, for the entire journey.
If your child is not able to sit like this, then it is safest for them to continue to travel in a booster seat. This will position the seat belt in a safe place on their shoulder and hips, and they can continue to travel safely.
Remember, if a child travels without a booster seat before they are tall enough to do so, the seat belt will contribute to injuries rather than prevent them.
Check Car Seats for Summer Road Trips
Don’t forget to have your children’s car seats checked before Christmas to be sure they are safe and secure when you get on the road this summer.
Often you’ll get tyres and brakes checked, maybe even a get WOF before you head away on holiday. It’s a good idea to add your children’s car seats to the list of things to check in your car before you leave.
One of the main jobs a car seat has to do is to reduce the movement of a child in a crash. If the seat itself can move, then the child within the seat experiences this movement too. This is what a car seat is designed to reduce, but it can only do this if it’s secure. Travelling in a securely installed child restraint gives your child much better protection from the risk of injury.
It’s simple to check if a child restraint is secure enough. To test this, hold the child restraint beside its belt path (this is where it is connected to the vehicle) and pull sideways. If it moves more than just 2.5cm then it is too loose and needs to be reinstalled.
There are other things to consider to make sure kids are kept safe during summer road travel:
Make sure a child restraint is set up properly for your child - is the harness in the correct position, is the headrest in the correct place?
Take regular breaks, especially if you’re travelling with young children.
Ensure loose items in the vehicle are kept to a minimum as these can become projectiles in a crash. And, if possible, use a luggage net over items in the back of a station wagon or SUV to restrict their movement.
Getting a child restraint installed securely and set up properly for a child can be tricky, so it can be a good idea to have your local child restraint technician do this for you. They are likely to be busy in the lead up to Christmas so make contact with them asap. You can find your local CRT here.
Car Seat Safety Standards
Child restraints sold and used in New Zealand must be manufactured to certain safety standards to comply with our law. The four safety standards approved for use in New Zealand are:
The Australian standard (AS/NZS 1754)
The European standard (ECE R44 & R129)
The Japanese standard - this standard is only approved for use in New Zealand with in-built child restraints in vehicles.
You’ll find more detailed information on safety standards and whether your seat is approved for use in New Zealand, in this article by SitTight.
Child Restraint Technicians
There’s no doubt car seats can be a challenge! In the early days of parenting, there is enough to keep you up at night without also wondering whether your precious little one’s car seat has been installed safely.
Thankfully this is one part of parenting that you can pass on to a professional!
There are people trained as “child restraint technicians” who are qualified to advise on and install child restraints as a profession. Spread throughout New Zealand, the CRT workforce is made up of individuals and organisations who can offer you support, answer your questions, reassure you with knowledge, and install your child restraint for you if necessary.
There are CRTs with a wealth of knowledge throughout the country on this topic, so why not let them help you out? Make contact with your local child restraint technician to ensure your car seats are installed securely and your children are safe on our roads.
You can find your local CRT here.
Safety in Driveways
One in 5 child pedestrian deaths or injuries occur in the family’s own driveway.
Children are four times more at risk of getting hurt by vehicles in driveways that are not separated from the house by a fence. Other risk factors include shared driveways, driveways that exit onto a less busy road or cul-de-sac, properties with additional parking areas and driveways longer than 12m.
Extreme care should be taken in driveways where children may be playing. Most of the children who are killed or injured are toddlers around 2 years of age. All vehicles have blind zones where small children cannot be seen.
Keep children safe and secure, well away from driveways.
Fence off the driveway from the house or play area — particularly if the driveway is shared.
Always check around the vehicle before getting in.
Know where children are before you start the vehicle.