Holiday travel can be stressful, with heavy traffic and the kids complaining in the back seat. But if you’re tempted to unbuckle them, even for a moment, think again.
Small frame, big impact
Dr Mandy Schur, a general practitioner with specialties in emergency medicine who co-manages Mediclinic Morningside’s Emergency Centre, says buckling up your child’s car seat is non-negotiable. Psychologically, it’s also a signal that they’re about to embark on an adventure, and it’s time behave properly. That’s important, she explains, because disruptive behaviour in the back seat can cause the driver to lose focus.
If an accident ensues as a result, your child is at risk of serious injury, especially if they’re not secured in their seat. “Essentially, a small, unrestrained child becomes like a projectile object in a car, potentially causing injury to other passengers while sustaining wounds themselves.”
The size of a child’s body means their injuries are likely to be serious, Dr Schur continues. “Children have small frames. Because of this, the impact of their body hitting any part of the car – say, a headrest – can be transmitted beyond the site of impact.” So, even if it looks like they’ve survived the accident with nothing more serious than a bruise, it’s possible that they have organ damage or internal bleeding. Children’s bones are also supple, which again makes it easy to transmit force.
Dr Schur explains that while the rupture of any organ is very bad news, a punctured lung is particularly dangerous, as it impairs breathing, which affects all other bodily processes.
She warns against trying to make do with a seatbelt instead of a car booster seat: if the seatbelt doesn’t fit properly, your child may slide down, potentially resulting in neck injuries in an accident.
How to buckle up properly
The car booster seat must be appropriate for your child’s height and weight, rather than age – it also needs to be installed correctly, if it’s installed incorrectly, it won’t add any safety, says Mandy Miller of the #CarSeatFullStop initiative. Be wary of having the seat too loose in the car; it shouldn’t move more than 2cm if you hold the seat at the base and give it a firm shake. Check the harness too. If it’s too loose, at the wrong height, or twisted in any way, it won’t be able to evenly distribute the crash force in case of an accident.
Miller says if you’ve have followed the manufacturer’s installation instructions carefully, you can feel confident that the seat is safe. However, you should still make sure all slack has been removed from the seatbelt, and that the base is solidly installed – this ensures the seat is mounted as tightly as possible. Check the headrest, too: the harness must be at the correct height and should be so tight that you cannot pinch the fabric of the belt between your fingers.
“You shouldn’t be able to get more than two fingers between the harness and your child’s collarbone,” Miller says. She adds that it's not a good idea to use after-market products unless they’ve passed crash testing. “Ensure the car seat you have has been tested and is recommended for your car, as it may interfere with the operation of the seat. It’s also possible that the materials are not flame resistant and may release toxins in extreme crash circumstances.”
Remember that children need to use backwards-facing car seats until they reach at least 18kg (around age four years) and must continue to use a car seat until they are aged between 10 and 12.
“Finally, bear in mind that anything loose in the car becomes a weapon in a crash. If a car suddenly stops or crashes, any loose object takes on the weight of the speed you were travelling, multiplied by the passenger’s actual weight. Even a bag or pencil becomes a projectile weighing much more than it usually would, and travels at an unimaginable speed. the potential to cause harm.” Make sure you don’t have unnecessary objects and that everything is safely stored under the seat or in the trunk.