No child’s play

Is your car safe enough to ferry the young ones? If not, here’s how you can step up the safety

By Abhijit Mitra
  • Published 22.07.18
  •  
Infants up to two years old need to sit in a rear-facing car seat, ideally affixed to the back seat.

Driving in central Calcutta on a Sunday afternoon, there was reason to do a double take. In the white compact SUV alongside was a little boy. He was standing in the space between the front passenger seat and the glove box, and was just tall enough for his head to be above the level of the dashboard on which he was resting his arms. Considering the traffic condition in the city, one shudders to think what would have happened if the SUV had to brake suddenly, or swerved to avoid hitting someone or something. 

Typically, when a vehicle hits another head on, the car stops, but its occupants continue their forward motion unless wearing a seat belt. With the foot acting as the pivot, the body moves forward and upward, and front passengers can bang their heads on the windshield with enough force to kill themselves. 

In this case, had the car swerved, the kid could have gotten injured from being thrown about inside the car. Worse, he could have come in the way of the driver and made him lose control of the vehicle. If that SUV had airbags, in case of a frontal collision they could inflate with great force and since the child was right next to the dash, he could get injured quite badly as the plastic flaps covering the airbag would open with explosive force to let it inflate in less than a second.
Sadly, the gentleman in the front passenger seat as well as the rest of the adults in the SUV seemed to be blissfully unaware of the risks they were exposing the child to. Not surprisingly, we are averaging over 400 child deaths a day on the road. Which brings us to the question of what we should do to keep children from getting hurt in vehicles, in accidents or otherwise.

STRAP IN

Since India does not have any rules relating to children’s safety in vehicles yet, there is no legally right or wrong way of ferrying them. But that’s not how it is in other countries. So one can pick up the do and don’t from child safety rules followed elsewhere.

Thankfully, with the bulk of the models sold in India now being made broadly in line with global norms, some safety features get automatically incorporated in them. For instance, almost every car sold today has child locks on rear doors and allows child seats and other accessories to be mounted. So how does one make the best use of what one has already paid for? Here are tips to keeping children safe in cars.

There are some specific ways of carrying children safely in cars and they depend on what age they are or how tall. Britain’s Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents says: “Children in cars, vans and other goods vehicles must be carried in an appropriate child restraint from birth until either they are 135cm (4’5”) tall or 12 years old, whichever comes first. There are very few exceptions. They must then use a seat belt (although it would be preferable to use a booster seat until they are 150cm [5’] tall).” 

A study of over 106,000 Indian children in the five-18 age group by Institute of Nuclear Medicine and Allied Sciences (INMAS) and All-India Institute of Medical Sciences (AIIMS) showed that the average height of 12-year-old children in India is 4’11”. So, children up to about 13 years old, to err on the side of caution, would need additional seating arrangements. After which, safety equipment provided for adults should be good enough to keep children safe too.
 

Children older than five years should use booster seats that make sure that the belts are in the right position.

PICK THE RIGHT SEAT 

There is, of course, no single solution and child restraints need to keep changing as the child grows up. Here are the broad categories.

• Infants up to two years old need to sit in a rear-facing car seat, ideally affixed to the back seat. In case that cannot be done, these seats can be fixed to the front passenger seat as well, but make sure that in such a situation the front airbag is switched off and cannot deploy in case of a collision. The infant should be totally inside the seat and have a five-point harness.

• Children above two years old can use a front-facing child seat and this should be mounted on the rear passenger seat. This seat can be used till the child is about five years old since, in most cases, he or she would be too tall or heavy for the seat after that. All child seats are made of certain height and weight ranges. They are not effective for shorter or taller children; it’s the same as shoes. So one needs to use a seat that’s the right size.

• By the age of five, children would probably need an upgrade to a booster seat and over the next eight years or so, these will have to go through a couple of size changes as the child grows up. They will have to continue using these till car seat belts fit properly, that is the lower part goes across the upper thighs and not the abdomen, and the diagonal belt goes across the chest and not cut into the neck. During this period, they should always ride in the back for maximum safety.

• While car seats are not required to be installed by the motor vehicles rules, awareness about them is growing in India and there are a variety of them available at car accessories stores, shops stocking children’s goods and, of course, online. Make sure the seats are properly secured as advised in the instruction manual for them to be effective. No matter how short a trip, make sure children are properly buckled in.

Also, make sure that the mounting system of the seats — Isofix or seatbelt — is compatible with that in your car. Not all cars in the market, particularly those in the economy segment, come with Isofix mounts.

THINGS TO REMEMBER

There are a couple of other things one can do to keep older children safer. For one, use the child lock and make sure even those who do not need the booster seat travel at the back, preferably in the middle seat. That’s the safest place in the car in case of a shunt. 

Second, under no circumstance should the child be allowed to ride without a seat belt. 

Third, one should never leave a child in a locked car, particularly in the sun, no matter how quickly one expects to be back. Temperatures inside a car in the sun can hit more than 60 degrees Celsius and children have died in the heat.

Finally, drive extra carefully when you have a child in the car. It’s always better to be safe than sorry.