Choosing and using car seats

Law and standard

There are laws for the type of restraints children of a certain age need to travel in.

  • birth to 6 months rearward facing restraint
  • 6 months to 4 years rearward or forward facing restraint
  • 4 to 7 years forward facing restraint or booster seat
  • older than 7 years booster seat or adult seatbelt

While the law specifies the minimum, it’s safest to only move your child to the next type of restraint once they outgrow their current restraint. The restraint you choose must meet the Australian standard and be properly fastened and adjusted.

The law on where children can sit in cars

There are also laws on where children can sit in a car.

  • from birth to under 4 years children must travel in the back seat in cars with two or more rows of seats
  • 4 to younger than 7 years children can only travel in the front seat if all available back seats are being used by younger children.
  • 7 years and older can legally travel in the front seat

While the law specifies a minimum, it is recommended to only allow your child to travel in the front seat when they are older than 12 years of age. 

Australian child restraint standard AS/NZS 1754:2013

The law requires parents to only use child restraints that meet the Australian standard. These restraints display an Australian Standards approved sticker.

Features of the current standard include:

  • age and shoulder height marking guides (not a weight based guide)
  • colour coded seatbelt paths to make installation and use easier
  • a design to minimise submarining
  • booster seats for children up to 8-10 years of age
  • forward facing restraint with a harness for children from approximately 6 months to 8 years of age
  • ISOFIX compatible restraints

Note: Booster cushions were deleted from the standard in 2010 and are no longer manufactured. RACV does not recommend booster cushions as they do not provide any side impact or head protection.

older versions of the child restraint standard

Parents can still use restraints that meet the 2004 and 2010 versions of the AS/NZS 1754 standard. While models meeting these standards can still be legally used, it is not safe to use a restraint that is more than 10 years old.

Using child restraints

The use of child restraints in Australia is high, with restraints used over 95% of the time. However misuse is a significant problem. In most cases where restrained children are injured, some form of misuse is generally involved.

It is the driver's responsibility to ensure that passengers are properly restrained in an approved child restraint or seatbelt.

To ensure that your child is safe, check that:

  • the restraint is right for the child's size
  • the child is secured in the restraint correctly
  • the restraint is correctly fitted to the car.

Graduation of children in restraints

Compared with children in dedicated child restraint systems, children in adult seatbelts are 3.5 times more likely to sustain a significant injury, particularly to the head. It is safest to keep children in their current restraint until they are too big for it. Check all options in your child’s recommended category before transitioning them to the next category of restraint to keep them as safe as possible.

Tips on using child restraints correctly

Research shows that children who are incorrectly restrained are up to seven times more likely to be seriously injured in a crash than children who are restrained correctly. Keep children safe by:

  • getting your restraint fitted at a restraint fitting station
  • checking the top tether strap is firmly connected to the anchor point
  • ensuring the straps or belts are not twisted
  • ensuring straps are taut and firm without being too tight or rigid every time the restraint is used
  • always set a good example for children and use a seatbelt every time you are in the car
  • keeping instructions in a safe place in case you need to adjust straps or fit the restraint again
  • see RACV's factsheet Using restraints - getting it right every trip for more information about keeping your child safe on every car trip

Child restraint disposal

Restraints older than ten years cannot be guaranteed to perform as they were originally designed. If you think the restraint is no longer safe it should be destroyed. Destroy the restraint if it

  • is older than 10 years
  • has been in a crash or shows signs of wear, tear or structural damage
  • does not have the AS/NZS 1754 sticker on the restraint

If you put the restraint out for hard rubbish collection, cut the straps so that no one else can use it.

Choosing a child restraint

RACV’s latest Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) test results demonstrate that not all child restraints are created equal. Restraints tested by this program are rated on how well they protect children in a crash and how easy they are to use.

You should choose a restraint that performs better in crash testing and that is easier to use.

Remember that convertible restraints might be safer in one position over another (for example 4 stars in the forward position and 3 stars when facing rearward). Restraints with a taller back can be used for longer so check the dimensions on childcarseats.com.au. It’s also a good idea to see how the restraint will fit into your car before you buy.

Hiring child restraints

You can hire restraints, such as capsules, for short term use by contacting your local council or hire service. Always check a hired restraint before you use it.  

  • check for obvious signs of wear on the straps or plastic shell
  • test the buckle and adjusters work properly

For more information, contact your local council or local restraint hire service.

Second-hand

It is important to be cautious when buying second-hand child restraints. An RACV survey found that 1 in 5 child restraints sold online or in stores are not suitable for sale because they were worn-out, damaged, too old or even illegal overseas models.

Not only would these restraints be a waste of money, they are potentially dangerous. Even though many second hand restraints were found to be in good condition, parents should ask lots of questions before buying. If you don’t get the answer you’re looking for, look for another one.

Tips for buying second hand restraints (download checklist)

1. Only buy a restraint that meets the Australian Standard

  • A sticker will show that it meets the AS/NZS 1754 standard. It is illegal to use overseas models or restraints meeting the 2000 or older standards.

2. Don’t use a restraint that’s more than 10 years old

  • A separate sticker should show the year of manufacture. Consider how long your child will need the restraint. Newer restraints are likely to be safer.

3. Check that all parts are in good condition

  • There should be no signs of wear and tear, and the buckle should click in to place securely.

4. Know the history

  • Damage might not be obvious, so it’s important to check if the restraint has been in a crash. A restraint that’s been in a crash must be destroyed and should not be for sale.

5. Check the safety rating

  • Compare the safety of seats at childcarseats.com.au

6. Check the restraint is suitable for your needs

  • Is the restraint the right size? Will it fit in your car?

7. Ask for the instruction manual

  • The manual will have instructions on fitting the restraint correctly. Some manuals can be downloaded online from manufacturers

Fitting

RACV recommends you have child restraints professionally installed. RACV has a network of restraint fitters throughout Victoria who can fit your restraint or check that it’s installed correctly. Using an accredited restraint fitting station has been shown to halve incorrect use of child restraints.

Fitting a restraint into a car might seem easy, but it can be quite difficult to get right. In fact, about 70% of child restraints are not installed correctly. If you have your restraint professionally installed, the fitter can also show you how to use the restraint and answer any questions.

Check your child restraint

Keep the instructions that came with the restraint in a safe place, like the dedicated pocket on the restraint. You can refer back to this if anything needs adjusting.

There are regular checks you can do to make sure you are using your restraint correctly, these include checking that the:

  • harness and the seatbelt are firm and without twists
  • seatbelt is clicked into place properly
  • tether strap is firmly attached to the anchor point (see your car’s manual for anchor point locations)
  • gap between the child and harness is no more than 2 fingers
  • child’s shoulders are within the correct range of the shoulder height markers
  • restraint is still right for the child's size. 

Anchor points

Child restraints and most boosters need to be attached via a top tether strap to an anchor point in the car. Typically, the anchor point can be found on the parcel shelf in sedans, and on the floor area in station wagons, vans and hatchbacks. Some station wagons may have the anchor point on the inside roof area.

Depending when a car was manufactured this will be either a special anchor bolt or anchor fitting. For the location of anchor points in your vehicle, refer to your owner's manual.

Make sure a luggage hook is not confused with an anchor point.

Child restraints and airbags

The risk of injury from an airbag is lowfor correctly restrained children in the back seat. Their risk of injury increases in the front seat and if they are leaning forward. 

The risk to children also increases in the back seat if they are not sitting correctly or if resting part of their body where there is an airbag.

It’s important to remember that the benefits of airbags far outweigh the risks.  

To keep safe and minimise these risks

  • choose the right restraint for your child’s age and height 
  • use your restraint correctly
  • children should travel in the back seat until they are 12 years or older.

If a child must travel in a car with an airbag and only one row of seats, you should move the seat back as far as possible and discourage your child from leaning forward.

Child restraints and airbags research report

RACV commissioned research on behalf of our members to determine the safety risk associated with placing children in child restraints close to airbags. Read the full research report

Shoulder height markers

5 step seatbelt test

Tips to prevent children escaping a child car seat harness

Tips on securely installing a child car seat with a gated buckle

Tips for using rearward facing restraints

Tips for using forward facing restraints

Tips for using booster seats

Types of child restraints

Rearward facing child restraints are used from birth to at least 6 to 12 months

Rearward facing restraints should be used from birth for as long as your baby’s shoulders fit between the shoulder height markers clearly labelled on the restraint.

There are two types of rearward facing restraints available:

Single purpose restraint can only be used in a rearward facing position and used from birth to at least 6 months and until the child fits in it
Convertible restraint rearward facing until babies outgrow this position then can be used as a forward facing restraint once the child is too tall for the rearward facing mode

Babies are safer if they stay in their rearward facing restraint for as long as possible. You should only move your children to a forward facing child restraint when they have outgrown their rearward facing child restraint. Just because a child has turned 6 months does not mean they are ready to travel in a forward facing child restraint.

Convertible restraints can be used for longer than single purpose restraints. Keep in mind that they might be safer in one position over another. Check childcarseats.com.au to choose a restraint that performs well in both positions

Monthly safety checks for rearward facing seats

The harness strap slot nearest to the child’s shoulders, but not below the shoulders should be used. When your child has outgrown the highest slot of their rearward facing restraint, they can be moved into a larger rearward facing restraint or forward facing child restraint.

Safety tips

  • Approximately 70% of child restraints are not installed correctly. A child restraint that is not fitted properly could result in serious injury or even death in a crash. It is strongly recommended that new restraints are professionally fitted by a trained child restraint fitter, so that parents can be shown how to fit the restraint correctly
  • Adjust the harness to fit baby as snugly as possible, and ensure the straps are not twisted.
  • If you use a blanket, put it on over the top of the harness.
  • The baby’s nappy should not be thickly folded at the back, otherwise the baby’s back will not be evenly supported.
  • Never put a rearward facing child restraint in the front seat due to the high risk of injury from an airbag.

Restraints meeting older versions of the Australian standard may have weight based recommendations. While some of these models can still be legally used, it is important to remember that it’s not safe to use restraints that are more than 10 years old.

  • See the section above for more about the current child restraint law and standard

Forward facing child restraints from 6 months to at least 4 years

Forward facing restraints should be used once a child no longer fits into their rearward facing restraint. This can be checked by seeing if your child’s shoulders fit between the shoulder height markers clearly labelled on the restraint.

There are three types of forward facing restraints available:

Single purpose restraint

can only be used in the forward facing position

 

Convertible rearward/forward facing restraint

can be used in the rearward facing position then adjusted to the forward facing position for infants who are too big for the rearward mode

 

Forward facing restraint/booster seat combinations

used as a forward facing restraint until at least age 4, then the seat can be used as a booster with a lap/sash seatbelt

 

Babies are safer if they stay in their rearward facing restraint for as long as possible. You should only move your children to a forward facing child restraint when they have outgrown their rearward facing child restraint. Just because a child has turned 6 months does not mean they are ready to travel in a forward facing child restraint.

Convertible restraints can be used for a little longer. Keep in mind that they might be safer in one position over another. Check childcarseats.com.au to choose a restraint that performs well in both positions.

Monthly safety checks for forward facing seats

Once your child has outgrown the highest slot of their rearward facing restraint, they can be moved into a larger rearward facing restraint or forward facing child restraint.

The harness strap slot nearest to the child’s shoulders, but not more than 2.5cm below the shoulders, should be used. When your child has outgrown the highest slot, they can be moved into a larger forward facing child restraint with an inbuilt harness OR a booster seat. This will depend on your child’s size.

Safety tips

  • Approximately 70% of child restraints are not installed correctly. A child restraint that is not fitted properly could result in serious injury or even death in a crash. It is strongly recommended that new restraints are professionally fitted by a trained child restraint fitter, so that parents can be shown how to fit the restraint correctly
  • Check the seatbelt and tether strap are taut and firm every time the restraint is used.
  • Adjust the car seat harness straps as a child grows, which includes moving the shoulder straps so they are above or level with the child’s shoulders.
  • Any child 12 years or younger should not be seated in front of a front passenger airbag if there is an available rear seat position.

Booster seats for children from 4 years until 8 to 10 years

Booster seats should be used once a child no longer fits into their forward facing restraint as indicated by the shoulder height markers. Booster seats are used with a lap/sash seatbelt for children who have outgrown a forward facing restraint.

Some booster seats are suitable for older children up to 8-10 years of age. These have adjustable head restraints and can accommodate children as they grow. 

How long should my child use a booster seat for?

Children should use a booster seat until they outgrow it. An adult lap/sash seatbelt is designed for people with a minimum height of 145cm. Children who use an adult seatbelt too early are 3.5 times more likely to sustain a significant injury in a crash.

There are two types of booster seats available:

Single purpose booster seats with a back

are designed to be used with a lap/sash seatbelt and may or may not have a top tether

 

Forward facing restraint/booster combinations

used as a forward facing restraints until at least age 4, then the seat can be used as a  booster with a lap/sash seatbelt

 

Booster cushions were deleted from the 2010 Australian child restraint standard and are no longer manufactured, but are available on the second hand market. They are not recommended for use because of safety concerns. Booster cushions do not offer side or head protection in a crash.

Safety tips

  • use a booster with back and side wings for more protection in a crash
  • boosters with a top tether help secure the booster in a car
  • seatbelt guides help the sash pass over the child’s shoulder without cutting into their neck
  • the seatbelt should sit flat on your child’s torso, and low and tight over their hips
  • some restraints have an anti-submarining clip which must be used to avoid children sliding under their seatbelt during a crash or heavy breaking, others may be designed to minimise submarining
  • DO NOT use a booster seat with a lap only belt and consider retrofitting a lap/sash seatbelt. If retrofitting isn’t possible, the lap seatbelt should be used in conjunction with a H-harness to support the child’s torso in a crash. It is illegal and unsafe to use a booster with a lap only belt. A harness attaches to the anchor point and is used with the lap belt.

Restraints meeting older versions of the Australian standard may have weight based recommendations. While some of these models can still be legally used, it is important to remember that it’s not safe to use restraints that are more than 10 years old.

  • See the section above for more about the current child restraint law and standard

Adult seatbelts for children taller than 145cm

Seatbelts are designed for people with a minimum height of 145cm.

The law requires children younger than 7 years to use an approved, properly fastened and adjusted child restraint or booster seat when travelling in a car. From age 7, children can use a booster seat or an adult seatbelt. Keep in mind that children who use an adult seatbelt too early are 3.5 times more likely to sustain a significant injury, particularly to the head. Do not move children to an adult seatbelt too early.

If your child does not fit correctly in an adult seatbelt, they will need to stay in a booster seat.

5 step test – Is your child ready to use a seatbelt

1. Does the child sit all the way back against the seat?
2. Do the child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder properly between the child’s neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible and touching the child’s thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?

Safety tips

  • Do not allow your child to slump when sitting in a seatbelt. The lap belt must be on their thighs.
  • A lap/sash belt is much safer than just a lap-only seatbelt. Consider retrofitting a lap/sash seatbelt that meets engineering requirements. 

FAQs

Choosing and using restraints

Which is the best restraint to buy for my child?

To provide your child with the best protection, select a restraint suitable for your child's age and height. Visit the childcarseats.com.au website to check a restraints safety performance.

How do I use each type of restraint safely?

Make sure your child restraint is correctly fitted and adjusted every time you buckle your child into the car. See RACV’s factsheet Using restraints, getting it right every trip.

What if my child is too big for the restraint for their age?

The laws cater for the majority of children however if a child is too big for their recommended restraint they may use the restraint in the next category.

Can I use a restraint that has been involved in a crash?

Do not use a restraint if it has been in a moderate to severe crash as the structure of the restraint may no longer be safe. The restraint should be destroyed.

Are second hand restraints safe to use?

Never use a restraint unless you are sure it has not been in a crash and you know it is less than 10 years old. Always check for obvious signs of wear, chalky residue or cracks on the plastic shell. Test that the buckle and adjusters work properly.

Is it illegal to use a booster cushion?

Booster cushions were deleted from the standard in 2010 however they can still be legally used. Booster cushions do not provide any side protection in a crash and RACV does NOT RECOMMEND their use.

When can my child start using an adult seatbelt?

Legally, children 7 years or older may use an adult seatbelt. However it is recommended that children use a booster until they reach at least 145cm or outgrow their booster seat. Children can be seriously injured in a crash if they are moved out of a booster seat too early.

Is it safe to share a seatbelt?

No! Seatbelts are designed to be used for one person only.

What about children with additional needs?

Some exemptions to child restraint laws may apply to children with a medical condition or physical disability. Seek advice from a health professional who can prescribe the best restraint for your child.

How do I transport my child safely in a taxi?

For optimal safety, parents should use their own child restraints. Children aged under 1 year must travel in the back seat, but do not have to use a child restraint. Children aged 1 year and over must be in their own seat, with their own properly fastened seatbelt if there is no child restraint or booster seat available.

Fitting child restraints

Can I fit my child’s restraint myself?

Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions to install a restraint. The best way to ensure that a restraint is fitted correctly is to have it fitted at a Restraint Fitting Station.

Approximately 70% of restraints are fitted incorrectly and can put children at risk in the event of a crash or heavy braking.

Does my restraint need to be anchored?

All restraints that have a top tether need to be anchored.

Where do I find an anchor point in my car?

Child restraints and most booster seats need to be attached via a top tether strap to an anchor point in the car. This will be shown in your car owner's manual.

Anchor points can be found in the parcel shelf, at the back of a seat, in the boot floor or even the roof behind the back seat.

It is recommended that you visit a Restraint Fitting Station to install your child’s restraint.

What is submarining?

Submarining occurs when a child slides under their seatbelt during a crash or heavy breaking if their seatbelt is not fitted correctly. Parents should NOT move children into the next type of restraint too early to avoid submarining.

Seating position

At what age can my child travel in the front seat?

By law, children under 7 years must not travel in the front seat if a car has two or more rows of seats.

If all back seats are being used by children younger than 7, children aged between 4 to 7 may travel in the front seat in an approved booster seat.

If your child must travel in front of a passenger frontal airbag, move the seat back as far as possible.

See RACV’s factsheet Child restraints and airbags.

Remember that it is safer for children to travel in the back seat until they are older than 12 years of age

What if I can’t fit three restraints in the back seat of my car?

Children are safest when restrained in the back seat however children can sit in the front seat in special circumstances such as when there is not enough space in the back seat. In these cases children aged 4 to 7 years can travel in a booster seat in the front seat.

Can I fit a restraint in a car that only has one row of seats?

You can legally use a restraint or booster seat in vehicles with only one row of seats provided there is a seatbelt and anchorage point available. However remember that it is safer for children to travel in the back seat until they are older than 12 years of age.

NEVER install a rearward facing restraint where there is an active front passenger airbag due to the high risk of injury. 

See RACV’s factsheet Child restraints and airbags.

Where is the safest position to restrain my child?

If practical, install restraints in the centre seating position in the back seat and get children out from the kerb side door.

Children up to and including 12 years of age are safest when restrained in the back seat. Children under 12 should not sit in front of a front passenger airbag if a back seat is available. See RACV’s factsheet Child restraints and airbags.

Can my child use the additional seat (dickie seat)?

It’s preferable to restrain children in the second row of seats. Dickie seats can legally be used by children aged 4 to 7 years provided the seat is suitable for their age and height.

Can I hold a child safely on my knee?

No! The forces of a crash are so great that even in low speed crashes, the strength needed to hold onto a child would be similar to lifting one end of a small car. In a 60 km/h crash the child's weight would be like trying to stop a half tonne weight from moving forward! Tests show that children can be thrown around the vehicle's interior or out of the vehicle.

 

Accessories

What’s the difference between a inbuilt and safety harness?

An inbuilt harness is part of a child restraint.

A child safety harness (H-harness) is sold as a separate item and is generally not recommended for use. They should ONLY be used with booster seats where a lap only belt is fitted.

Do I need to use a harness with my child's booster seat?

You don’t need a harness unless a lap-only belt is fitted. Booster seats are designed to be used with a lap/sash seatbelt. Using an external harness is NOT recommended.

What accessories can I use with my restraint or booster?

Accessories are not recommended unless they are sold with your restraint or booster. After market accessories can make it more difficult to remove a child from a car in a crash or even interfere with the performance of a restraint.

ISOFIX compatable child restraints

The latest version of the Australian Standard for child restraints (AS/NZS 1754:2013) has an option for manufacturers to produce ISOFIX compatible child restraints. ISOFIX is an alternative way to attach a child restraint to a vehicle, without a seatbelt.

ISOFIX compatible child restraints have been introduced as another option for how child restraints can be fitted to cars – not because of any concerns with the safety of the current range of child restraints. There is strong evidence that Australian child restraints that use the vehicle seatbelt and top tether strap provide excellent protection to children, even in very high severity crashes.

Child restraints that use the vehicle seatbelt and top tether strap will continue to be available. Australian ISOFIX compatible child restraints will just be another option to choose from. ISOFIX compatible child restraints will also still have an option to allow them to be fitted with a seatbelt.

There is still potential for incorrect use of ISOFIX compatible child restraints, so it is important to take care when fitting and using child restraints, no matter the type.

All child restraints sold in Australia must comply with the Australian Standard and display and Australian Standards sticker. It is illegal to use an overseas model or a restraint that doesn’t meet these requirements.

To help choose the safest child restraint, visit the Child Car Seats website. This website contains information from The Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) that independently crash tests child restraints and provides star ratings for crash protection and ease of use. As more ISOFIX compatible child restraints become available, they will be included in the testing.

Children with additional needs

All children need to travel safely and comfortably to and from places such as school, leisure activities or medical appointments. Children with additional needs (e.g. due to a medical condition or behavioural problem) often require special consideration when being transported in cars. For some parents and carers of children with a disability, it can be challenging to find a restraint that meets their child’s special needs. It’s important however to find the right restraint to reduce the risk of injury to a child in a crash.

The Transportation of Children and Youth with Additional Needs (TOCAN) partnership, has created a website resource to help parents ensure their child is legally and safely restrained, and to assist health practitioners assess children and prescribe modified or specialised restraints.

The site also includes information on funding options for parents and contact details for suppliers. In special circumstances, a child restraint that does not comply with the Australian Standard can be used by children with additional needs so they can be transported safely. In this situation, the child will need an exemption from using a restraint meeting the Australian standard, which can be obtained when a number of conditions are met, such as a medical certificate.

It is important to remember that parents and carers of children with additional needs must consult with a health professional, such as an Occupational Therapist, who will help them choose the most suitable restraint for their child. Health professionals involved in this process use the Australian Standard AS/NZS 4370:2013 (Restraint of Children with Disabilities, or Medical Conditions, in Motor Vehicles) to assist them assess and recommend the most suitable option for restraining a child with additional needs in a car.

TOCAN continue to work on transportation issues related to children, adolescents and youth. It is the goal of TOCAN for young people to travel as safely as possible.

For more information about the transportation of children and youth with additional needs, see the TOCAN website.

Pregnancy and driving

Wearing a seatbelt while pregnant

It is important that you always wear a seatbelt throughout your pregnancy.

It is illegal not to wear a seatbelt unless a medical practitioner exempts you from wearing one due to medical reasons.

Wearing a seatbelt protects yourself and your unborn baby in the event of a crash. If a seatbelt is worn properly there is very little pressure on your stomach.

Correctly and comfortably wear a seatbelt by:

  • placing the lap part of the belt under your baby and low over your upper thighs
  • adjusting the angle of the seatbelt using the seatbelt locator
  • placing the sash part of the belt in between your breasts.

Driving after caesarean

You shouldn’t drive until your wound has healed (usually about six weeks). Talk with your doctor about when it would be a safe time to start driving again.