Car Safety: Protecting our Precious Cargo

We can’t afford to be blasé about our children’s safety in our cars
By Marina Zietsman

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Accidents are measured in statistics. During and after every school holiday newsreaders share these figures with us, and we grimly compare the latest death toll to the previous years’ – is it up or down? If someone we love is not part of the statistics, the figures are soon forgotten.
The Numbers
But let’s break those stats down a bit, and bring them closer to the parental home: from 1 January to 31 December 2009, 13 768 people died on our roads. Of these, 12,05 percent were child passengers 14 years and younger – that’s 1 659 children! In fact, according to the World Health Organisation’s 2007 data on road-accident fatalities worldwide, only Brazil, China, India, Iran, Mexico, Russia and the USA had more deaths on their roads than we did. Staggering if you keep in mind that at the time these countries’ populations ranged from 71 million to 1,3 billion, compared to South Africa’s 48 million.
The Causes
Excessive speed and driving under the influence of alcohol are the two main causes of road accidents in South Africa. However, fatalities and serious injuries among children are mostly caused by young ones not being appropriately restrained. There are no statistics available for child restraint use, but Petro Kruger, director of The Road Safety Foundation says that according to internal research done by the foundation in 2008, less than two percent of rear-seat occupants, including children, use a seat belt. Professor Sebastian van As, head of the Trauma Unit at Red Cross Children’s Hospital in Cape Town and president of The Child Accident Prevention Foundation of Southern Africa (CAPFSA), says approximately 200 to 300 children are admitted to the hospital each year due to injuries sustained in car accidents, “and of these, 87 percent were unrestrained. Up to 71 percent of these children were passengers in the front seat. People don’t get it – a baby has a 70 percent better chance of surviving a motor-vehicle accident if restrained and a toddler up to 54 percent. Parents go to the supermarket and buy bottles of wine, which they tuck in safely so that the bottles don’t break during the journey, but what about their children?” asks Van As.
A scientific study published by the World Health Organisation, the FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the Global Road Safety Partnership and the World Bank shows that harmful injury is the result of “energy interchange”. During a collision, this kinetic energy exchange makes it physically impossible for any occupant to securely hold an unrestrained object, such as a child.
If you are involved in a collision while travelling at just 50 kilometres per hour, a child’s weight will effectively increase 20 times, turning a 10-kilogram baby into a 200-kilogram weight within a split second. Kruger says Newton’s law applies: “Every object in a state of uniform motion tends to remain in that state of motion, unless an external force is applied to it. This means that if the car is travelling at 100 kilometres an hour, then any object or person in the car is also going that fast until a net force (child restraint) or object (windshield, dashboard) acts to slow them down.”
Strap Them In!
The world’s leading role players on child safety are the US Department of Transportation as well as the National Safe Kids Campaign in America. Their basic safety tips are also advocated by Arrive Alive in South Africa. These include:
  • Buckle up every time, no matter how short the trip.
  • Children 12 and younger should be properly restrained in the back seat. While air bags can save adults’ lives, children sitting in the front seat can be seriously injured or killed when an air bag deploys in a crash. Even with advanced air bags or with air bags disabled or not fitted, the back seat is safer for children. The air bags built into your dashboard on the passenger side are designed to deploy at the chest height of an average adult, and do so at more than 200 kilometres per hour. Earlier this year, 10-year-old Emmanuel Bernardo from Namibia was permanently blinded by an air bag that kicked in during a minor accident. It exploded in his face while he was seated in the front passenger seat of a BMW. Doctors say that the boy’s eyes literally ruptured on impact and that Emmanuel will not be able to see again.
  • “Researchers at the University of Buffalo studied all car collisions involving a fatality in the US between 2000 and 2003,” says Kruger. “They came to the conclusion that depending on the make of the vehicle, occupants in the back seat are 59 to 86 percent safer there than in the front seat. In fact, the rear middle seat was found to be 16 percent safer than any other seat in the vehicle.”
  • Never put a rear-facing child in a car’s front seat.
  • Choose the right child safety seat or safety belt for your child’s size and age.
  • Infants should ride in rear-facing safety seats, until they are at least 12 months old and weigh at least nine kilograms.
  • Children who are at least one year old, and weigh nine to 18 kilograms, should ride in a forward-facing child-safety seat on the back seat.
  • Children over 18 kilograms should be correctly secured in a belt-positioning booster seat. A booster must be used on the back seat of the car only. These seats are not installed in the same way as child car seats; they instead sit on the vehicle seat and are used to properly position the adult seat belt for an older child.
  • Once the vehicle safety belt fits a child, both the lap and shoulder belts should be used correctly. Vehicle seat belts are designed to fit an average-sized adult. Many children will be 12 years old before they meet these height and weight requirements.
  • Your child can be moved from a booster seat to a seat belt in the back seat if your child passes the Safety Belt Fit Test (visit for details of this test).
  • Install and use all restraints according to the manufacturer’s instructions and your vehicle owner’s manual. Ensure your child safety seat has not been recalled. In South Africa, only SABS-approved seats must be used. Kruger says there are no seat belt fitment experts in South Africa. “The instructions for fitting the child seats are sometimes inadequate and often confusing. Parents must make sure they understand the instructions.”
  • It is not ideal to buy second-hand car or booster seats, except if you are 100 percent sure of the history. Car and booster seats that have been in accidents are not acceptable.
By Law
The National Road Traffic Act, Act 93 of 1996, is very confusing on car restraint and allows for too many exceptions. But according to Van As the problem is not the law, but its implementation. “The law exists, but is not enforced. The bottom line is: all motor-vehicle passengers must be strapped in, each child according to their age.” Van As continues that parents might complain about the cost of these seats, “but, if you have enough money to own a car, and to put petrol in that car and drive off with your child, you can afford to invest in the proper child restraint.”
Keeping Children Safe Along the Way
  • Keep the interior of the car clear of loose objects such as sports equipment or groceries. In a collision these objects become missiles that could seriously injure occupants.
  • When driving, don’t give toddlers or babies anything that could be a choking hazard such as biscuits or fruit.
  • If a child is unhappy or crying, do not lean back to attend to him. Pay attention to your driving and stop at a safe place.
  • A parent’s lap is not a safe place for a child. In the case of an accident, the child actually acts as an air bag for the passenger holding her.
  • When travelling long distances, always ensure that you stop and rest and take the child out of the child seat for at least 10 minutes every two hours.
  • Children are not cargo and should never be transported on the back of a bakkie, even with a canopy.
(Courtesy: The Road Safety Foundation) 


Anonymous wrote 6 years 13 weeks ago

I'm on the way to becoming a new parent and am pretty clued up on the manner of transporting my infant around, however I just want clarity as to whether putting a car seat in the front (without the air bags on) is legal? (I'm well aware that this still isn't safe, but just want to know if it's legal.)

admin wrote 6 years 13 weeks ago

The law seems to imply that the car seat should not be in the front because of the danger, but as the article points out, the problem is the implementation of the law.

Zanu wrote 7 years 33 weeks ago

I agree 100% with this and often find family and friends making fun of my 7 year old because he is in a car seat. I have taught him to tell them that his safety comes first and that they obviously don’t care enough about him or other children to say things like that. It distresses him and I often have to coax him into being positive about the car seat. In my car, safety is not negotiable. The other issue that I have and would really recommend that Child mag investigates is that older cars do not have seatbelts in the backseat. A friend asked me if I knew of a place that installs seatbelts and I have come up with nothing. Are there manufacturers, suppliers or a place that one can have seatbelts fitted into older vehicles?

Anonymous wrote 7 years 50 weeks ago

I just got my 15 month-old son a new front-facing car seat. I am sometimes tempted to make him sit on my lap when the father drives because he cries for me, but this helps me sober up. It is amazing how we tend to ignore the fact that babies/toddlers also need restraints to be safe when the undesirable happens. Great reminder. Thanks!

karen Muller wrote 8 years 6 days ago

Hi there
Please can somebody who reads my message tell me where do I buy car seats for a 6 yr old? My son is blind and is outgrowing his normal 0–5 yr child seat with over-the-shoulder straps and seat inclines for a tilt effect. I have tried him in a L-booster shape seat with just the seatbelt. This does not work! He tilts sideways as he is used to that cushioned / padded and over-shoulder security. I have approached ALL baby shops, even though he isn’t a baby, but I need seating for him to secure him. I am a single mom. If I have an accident, he cannot see or walk or talk. I need to know he is strapped in securely. Why can’t we find disability items in normal baby / kids shops? Please somebody tell me where to buy this car seat.
083 328 1938

Chillepeppa wrote 8 years 14 weeks ago

Just last week I saw this...

A woman driving a Nissan Almera, with 3 poodles on her lap, all trying for a spot in the window, with her toddler STANDING on the front passenger seat. Made my blood boil.

Anonymous wrote 8 years 14 weeks ago

Great article. I can add one thing though. The parents that do ensure their toddlers are strapped into a forward-facing seat on the backseat face a problem for which a solution is yet to be found. Many toddlers are able to wriggle out of the part of the restraints that go over their shoulders leaving their upper body unrestrained. This is very dangerous but can be solved by including a chest clip on each car seat. They are being sold seperately in the US but I'm constantly being told that this does not conform to EU standards and thus will not be imported into SA. The reason being that it may hamper efforts to remove the child from the seat in case of an accident. Would you rather struggle removing the child or remove the child easily with possible upper-torso injuries and a broken neck?

Anonymous wrote 8 years 14 weeks ago

Really good article! Do you have any safety tips for someone who has to drive in a bakkie (single cab) with an infant under a year old, please?

Xannthe-Ludi wrote 8 years 14 weeks ago

Gosh this is not only eye-opening but also mind-blowing.

Anonymous wrote 8 years 18 weeks ago

Fantastic written piece! What a pity that more people dont ensure their children are safely buckled up. Too many "caring" parents carry their children on their laps in the front seat! Where are the child's rights? They have the right to be buckled up in the back seat! Imagine how awful you would feel if your child was killed because they were crushed by the dashboard or flew through the windscreen in an accident - just because YOU were too lazy to buckle them up in case they got angry with you or cried not to sit in their seat and wanted to rather be with you in the front seat! Why don't you get in the back and sit next to them while they are in their seat?

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