This September, new safety regulations will require children below 135cm1, and the age of 11, to use a child seat. It is the driver’s responsibility to ensure that this is the case, and fines of up to £500 can be imposed if it goes to court. A quick google search suggests that the average child hits 135cm at age nine. When I was eight, I sure as hell wouldn’t have wanted to be put into a car seat. There seems to be evidence that seat belts provide the most protection for those over 135cm2, but whether it’s enough to make any real difference is an interesting question. Available data don’t seem to support the regulations.
Economist and Freakonomics author Steven Levitt examined data from the US Government’s “Fatality Analysis Reporting System”, which has collected police data on accidents since 1975, including details of whether and how restraints were used. Levitt concludes that:
among children 2 and older, the death rate is no lower for those traveling in any kind of car seat than for those wearing seat belts
Controlling for vehicle size, year of accident (are newer car seats better?) and severity of accident makes no difference.
This data is based on fatalities. What about injuries? That’s harder to analyse. Levitt and co-author Dubner commisioned various crash-tests using dummies based on children of various ages and with sensors to measure the force suffered. Although the force was greater with seat belts, due to their being designed for people over 135cm, it was below that considered likely to cause injury. The authors admit that this is by no means comprehensive, and say that different analyses of real-world data have produced conflicting results. It’s just not known whether car seats reduce injuries, at this point.
Parents go mental over car seats. They have to be installed by qualified technicians, often at considerable expense. Not that there’s anything wrong with this, of course – I’d probably be exactly the same: here’s something I can control relating to my kid’s safety, and I’m damn well going to do everything I can to comply with regulations. But if the effort put into car seat publicity were instead turned onto car manufacturers, to get them to design better seat belts, wouldn’t it save a large amount of needless expense, annoyance and worry?
Safety groups estimate that up to 60% of children don’t wear seat belts at all, and the adults aren’t much better, particularly if they’re in the back seat. Excuses, incidentally, range from “it’s just a short journey” to “it creases my clothes”. If people are happy to break the law currently, are child seat laws for children up to 11 going to make any difference?