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Children as front passengers in cars: From what age is it really safe?

2017-09-08 12:31

Image: iStock

Ane Theron - AutoTrader

Cape Town - As I drive from my house, I stop at the first traffic circle. In front of me, a common sight on our roads: A 5-year-old standing on his knees on the back seat of the car in front, looking at me absent-mindedly.

As the female driver turns left, I see a child of a similar age sitting in front - whether he’s buckled up or not, I cannot establish.

Not that it matters - in the case of a collision, even at only 50km/h, both children could die. If not from the intensity of the exploding airbag, if there is one (it explodes at 350km/h), probably from hitting the dashboard or windshield and sustaining serious head injuries.

A mom who works at an emergency ward at a local hospital bore witness to the aftermath of a 6-year old child who recently died after wanting to ride up-front in the car with her dad. As another vehicle hit them from the rear, the child (who had been buckled up), slipped from underneath the seat belt, and into the dashboard, dying on impact.

I cannot imagine the guilt that the poor father will be carrying around with him for the rest of his life - the irony is that the child’s booster seat was safely secured in the back. So many parents would rather give in to their whining child, instead of just being responsible and saying ‘no’.

See what happens to an unrestrained child on the back seat in this crash test video.

        

So when can kids ride safely in front? Let’s begin by saying that no child seat should ever be used in front when there’s an airbag activeThe real question is when they can lose the booster seat, and then graduate to regular seat use - and eventually the front seat.

Lately, my youngest (a short-for-his-age , 8-year-old) has been moaning about riding in the back, in his booster seat. He says it makes him feel babyish - none of his friends have booster seats. However, being much shorter than 1.5 metres, he will just have to grin and bear it for a few more years. Generally speaking, if a boy or girl is under 1.5 metres tall and under 36kg in weight, it means that his/her little behind should stay in its car seat or booster seat, until he/she outgrows it.

READ: SA parents are buckling up their kids: More than 19 000 says 'safety first'

His sister, however, has had a growth spurt and is the size and weight of a 13-year-old, if not quite in years. Does she get to ride in front? Yes, I have allowed it for short distances, until I read a pediatrician’s report on ‘the effects of child age and body size on serious injury from passenger airbag presence in motor vehicle crashes’. And was I in for a surprise - according to the writer, only children from age 15 and up were truly benefitting from the life-saving abilities of an airbag.

                                                                            Image: iStock

Serious injuries in children

In children ages 14 and under, death and serious injuries, especially to the head, eyes and face, are to be expected when accidents happen that cause the airbags to deploy. Yes, we are talking severe facial burns, fractures to the neck, lacerations, and blindness - in other words, severe disfigurement and disability. Even if the child survives, what will his or her quality of life be?

Another interesting conclusion of this study was that age may indeed be a better marker than height or weight, for risk assessment regarding children and airbags. Older children just seem to be better at withstanding the severe physical trauma of a deploying airbag. In other words, from now on, I won’t let any child of mine ride in front until their 14th birthday. And if they complain? I will tell them that they should just pretend that I am their chauffeur (isn’t that what most moms are, anyway?).

As for getting rid of the booster seat in the back; if the seat belt fits the child like it’s supposed to without the booster, I will reconsider. In other words; the seat belt must go over the shoulder and cross the centre of his/her chest, not be high up and against the neck. A child who is tall enough to ride without a booster seat, will be able to bend his knees at the end of the seat if his back is pushed firmly against the backrest. Will he be able to sit like this for the entire trip? If not, then he is not ready for car travel without his car seat or booster seat. Full stop.

*Do you have an unused baby seat, car seat or booster seat lying about? Donate it to a family who can’t afford to buy one. Get in touch with WheelWell who will make it happen. You can also visit Arrive Allive for more info on the choosing the correct car seat, correct fitment, and other useful information. 

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