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Keeping your big kid safe in the car

Pieter Niemand, national director of the Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA), a proud association of RMI

Most of us are familiar with car safety rules for small kids: always use a backwards facing car seat until your child is two years old, for instance. But what about older kids? After all, just because they have more candles on their cake doesn’t mean they should be overlooked.

Many parents don’t realise that seat belts are intended for adult use only, informs Pieter Niemand, national director of the Motor Industry Workshop Association (MIWA), a proud association of RMI. This is why children should use booster seats until they are between the ages of eight and 12, or measure 1,44 meters and weigh 36kg. It is only at this stage that their bones have ossified (knitted together), prior to which point being in an accident can cause even more severe damage.

How to tell if you’re ready to dispense with that booster? “A good rule of thumb is that your child’s legs should be long enough to bend at the seat’s edge, with knees and feet hanging, when she sits against the back of the seat,” Niemand says. Look out, too, for a proper fit: the seat belt should fit as it does when you wear it, without cutting across the neck and face, or across the thighs. In other words, the shoulder component must strap snugly across shoulder and chest, while the lap belt is tight enough to avoid sagging across the belly.

It’s important to note that the shoulder belt must remain across the upper body at all times. Many children find this uncomfortable, and prefer to tuck it under their arms or behind their backs – but this compromises the protection offered. By the same token, says Niemand, seat belts that comprise a lap belt only should not be considered safe. But don’t be tempted to rectify the situation by buying an ‘add-on’ seatbelt extender: Niemand warns that these are not regulated by safety standards, so there’s no guarantee they’re doing the job. “A better idea is to have a proper seat belt retro-fitted. Find a reputable repair workshop, which is a MIWA member, to do the job,” he recommends. He adds that sharing seatbelts is not safe, either.

Although older children love ‘the importance’ of sitting in the front seat, this is an absolute no-no, according to Niemand: It’s back seat only. This ensures that they are further away from the site of impact in case of an accident, especially in view of the fact that most fatal car accidents have a frontal impact. More than this, sitting in the front inevitably places them in contact with an air bag – and, again, their bodies are not yet sufficiently developed to handle to force of an unfolding airbag. Need further convincing? Because their little bodies are so small and lightweight, it’s very easy for a child to literally fly through the windscreen in case of an accident – and only 25% of children who experience this survive. If your child fits into this lucky statistic, chances are high that she will be permanently disabled.

Nor is your lap a suitable replacement for a seatbelt. Consider this: when travelling, your child’s weight is increased by the speed of travel – so your 15kg daughter weighs 900kg if you are travelling at 60km/h. You may be able to hold onto a 15kg child, but it’s impossible to hold tight to a 900kg weight.

Finally, Niemand issues a reminder that not only is it illegal for any child under to forego wearing a seatbelt, but you, as the driver, are legally responsible for any child under the age of 14 who is travelling without a seatbelt.