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Child car safety: Why wearing a seatbelt saves lives

With 700-1 000 child deaths on SA roads a year, ensuring your child wears a seatbelt can mean the difference between life and death.

It’s the start of the early morning school rush and your child is throwing a tantrum about having to sit in the back seat of the car and buckle up. While it might be tempting to let her get her way just this once – don’t! Motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of (unintended) death of children and young people globally, and “just this once” might be all that’s needed for tragedy to strike.

Law and order in South Africa

Drive around pretty much anywhere in South Africa and you’ll see a high percentage of drivers who are not wearing a seatbelt. Chances are, you’ll also see children rolling around, unrestrained in the back, or bouncing on the lap of a passenger or even the driver. South African law requires that all occupants, including children, are restrained in a car. However, a 2009 report by the World Health Organization that surveyed road safety in 178 countries, found that in South Africa, only 50% of front-seat passengers/drivers and only eight percent of rear passengers actually wear seat belts. It also revealed that the level of enforcement of the law is very low, rated as 2 on a scale of 1-10, with 1 being the lowest. When enforced, the fines imposed for not wearing a seatbelt are around R200 – not much of a deterrent!

What could happen to an unrestrained child in the event of an accident?

In an accident, an unrestrained passenger will be flung forward and collide with whatever they come into contact with. This could be a seat, windscreen, or even the road, and many children, due to their small size, are often thrown out of the vehicle. Fatal accidents can even happen in a parking lot at a mere 25km/h, since the force of a person is 20 times their body weight in a collision. For example, the weight of a 50kg person travelling at 50km/h at the time of a collision will increase 30-60 fold, making them 1,5 tons at the time of impact. That’s the weight of an average car! Regardless of the speed at which you are travelling, unrestrained children are more likely to be injured, suffer severe injuries, and die in motor vehicle crashes than children who are restrained.

A word on car seats

Car seats have been shown to reduce the risk of child injury by up to 82% and the risk of death by 28%, compared to wearing seat belts only. This includes booster seats which have specifically been shown to reduce the risk of injury by 45% in four- to eight-year-olds compared to children of that age wearing only seat belts. Wearing the correct restraints and using them correctly is also important, as nearly a third of children ride in the wrong restraints for their age and size, and four out of five child safety seats are used incorrectly. New research published in the United States in early 2011 (American Academy of Pediatrics, April 2011) recommends that children should be kept in rear-facing car seats until age two or until they have reached the height and weight maximums set by the car seat manufacturer. This will provide them with the most protection, should an accident occur.

5 Ways to protect your child in a car

  1. Keep your children in a forward-facing car seat as long as possible until their weight limit exceeds that specified for the car seat.
  2. Delay the transition between the different types of car seats as long as possible. As you transition from a rear-facing to a forward-facing seat, to a booster seat to just a seat belt, you lose protection and your child is more likely to be injured in a crash.
  3. Regularly check to see if your child is still within the specifications for the car seat you are using. Booster seats are usually recommended until the child is around 145cm tall, on average the age of 10.
  4. Children should ride in the backseat until they are 13 years old, since studies have shown this reduces the risk of injury by 40 – 70%.
  5. Never put a rear-facing car seat or a child of 12 years and under in a front seat with an airbag.


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