Confusion reigns over child car seat safety

A boy and a girl compare heights against a yellow background.

Sue Hewitt

Posted September 22, 2020

Victorian parents still confused about when to move children out of a booster seat.

A new RACV survey has revealed widespread confusion among Victorian parents about when it is safe to move children out of a car booster seat

The survey of parents of more than 1500 children aged from newborns to 12-year-olds showed that 11 per cent of parents incorrectly believed the decision to move a child from a booster seat to an adult seatbelt is based on age or weight. In fact, children must not travel in an adult seatbelt until they reach a height of at least 145 centimetres and can pass the five-step process.

While many of those surveyed believe child-restraint laws are inadequate, RACV’s senior policy adviser on safety, Elvira Lazar, says the rules are adequate but that there is misunderstanding and misinterpretation about the laws. 

“If interpreted correctly there isn’t any issue with the law but there is work that can be done to help parents understand how kids should be safely restrained,” Elvira says. 

The findings reinforce the importance of the joint RACV and Transport Accident Commission Booster Tag campaign, which features a specially designed clothing tag for kidswear. The tag indicates that if a child still fits in the garment, they are likely to be too small to safely move out of a booster seat. 

“Less than three per cent of nine-year-olds are 145 centimetres tall but the survey found that half of nine-year-olds were travelling in a seatbelt alone,” Elvira says. 

“While it’s disappointing to see some parents think age or weight determine when to move children into the next type of restraint, it’s clear that even these parents were making an effort to interpret the law but were confused by it. 

“We found parents of children aged four and seven were most likely to make these mistakes.” 

Elvira says that four to seven-year-olds must be “suitably” restrained in either a forward-facing child restraint or booster seat, but she says the term “suitably” is not clearly explained. 

“A booster seat becomes suitable only once a child no longer fits in their forward-facing restraint,” she says. 

The survey also found parents of young children were confused about child-restraint laws. 

By law, newborns to six-month-old children must be in a rear-facing restraint, then from six months to four years old they must be “suitably” restrained in either a rear-facing or forward-facing restraint. 

“Some parents mistakenly thought that they needed to have their baby forward facing from six months of age,” Elvira says. 

“But the laws actually allow for children to be rear-facing up until the age of four, highlighting confusion over the laws. And there are products available to allow children to stay rear-facing longer.” 

Children aged from seven to 16 years must be suitably restrained in a booster seat or adult seatbelt. 

Elvira says it is encouraging that some children aged seven or older were using harnessed car seats – a good alternative to booster seats, especially for large families with limited room in the back seats. 

She says children need to pass the five-step test to move from a booster seat and travel safely in an adult seatbelt.

Five life-saving steps to test if your child fits into an adult seatbelt  

Even when your child has reached 145 centimetres, it is important to use the five-step test to ensure they fit properly into an adult seatbelt. 

  1. Check that your child has their back flat against the back of the seat. 
  2. When sitting all the way back with their back flat, their legs should be able to bend over the seat edge. 
  3. The seatbelt should run over the middle of the child’s shoulder and not dig into their neck. 
  4. The seatbelt should sit low and firm across the child’s hips and touch their thighs. 
  5. This position should be comfortable and allow the child to sit in this position for the whole trip.

Plus, check out out guide to Australia's safest child car seats