Child seats – the Law
Generally speaking the law is clear – all persons, including children travelling in a motor vehicle should be properly restrained. The penalty for failing to do so is that the driver faces a fine of up to £500.00. Children must normally use a child car seat until they are 12 years old or 135cm tall (whichever comes first). After reaching this stage an adult seatbelt should be used. There are however a number of exceptions.
Child seats generally
Only EU approved child car seats can be used in the UK. You can identify these since they are marked on the label with a capital ‘E’ in a circle. Never use a car seat that does not have this identifying label. When buying and fitting your child seat, only use one with a seat belt that has a diagonal strap, unless it is specifically designed for use with a lap seat belt (most are not). Child seats should always be front or rear-facing, and never side-facing, although whether a rear-facing child seat is suitable depends upon the size of the child. Second hand seats should be avoided as you do not know their history. Although there is no hard and fast guideline on the point, common sense dictates that a seat that has been involved in an accident may have suffered from structural damage and should not therefore be used again.
Babies, ie children weighing under 13 kg should be placed in a rear-facing baby seat. Ideally, the seat should be in the back of the car. However, if you must fit the child seat in the front, deactivate any passenger airbags (all makes of car fitted with passenger airbags have a control switch). If you do not do so and the airbag activates onto a rear-facing child seat, the results can cause severe, and occasionally fatal crushing injuries. For that reason, it is against the law to convey a child in a rear facing child seat in the front where the passenger airbag is active.
Children from 9 to 18 kg weight can travel either in a front or rear facing baby seat.
Children under 3 years of age
Children under 3 years of age can travel either in the front or rear of a vehicle. When doing so, they should be seated in a properly fitted child seat.
Whilst it remains the drivers responsibility to ensure the child is properly restrained, when travelling in a taxi or public service vehicle, the child may travel in the rear only without a child seat where no child seat is available. This exception is for practical reasons only, and is not any indication children are safer in such vehicles. They are not. You should always try to ensure a child seat is available for use at all times.
Where there is no room for a third child seat in the back of a vehicle, the third child must travel in the front seat with the correct child seat (so there are 2 children in the back directly behind driver & passenger seats and one in the front seat).
Children aged 3 to 12 years (or up to 135 cm tall)
For older children, the correct child seat will normally be a booster seat (15 to 25kg) or a booster cushion (over 22kg). Unlike under 3’s, when travelling in a taxi or passenger service vehicle that does not have a child seat, an over 3 years old must use a child seatbelt (where available), else an adult seat belt and they should sit in the back.
A child between the ages of 3 and 12 is also permitted to travel in any other vehicle without a child seat where the journey is short, unexpected and necessary. The words “short”, “unexpected” & “necessary” have been chosen carefully to ensure that it is only in an emergency situation that a young child can travel without a child seat in a private car. Clearly this excludes the daily school run!
Where there is no room in the back of a car for a third child seat, a child over age 3 can sit in the rear using the fitted (adult) seatbelt.
Children aged over 12 (or over 135 cm height)
Older children should wear an adult seatbelt when travelling in a vehicle. Aged below 14 legal responsibility remains with the driver to ensure the passenger is using their seatbelt. From age 14 it is the passengers, rather than drivers, legal responsibility to comply with the mandatory seat belt laws.
Vehicles that don’t have seatbelts
Some vehicles such as classic cars do not have seatbelts. Children under the age of 3 are prohibited from travelling in such vehicles. Over the age of 3, a child can travel in the rear only of such a vehicle.
Any parent will sympathise with the situation we are about to describe. Just because the law says a child must be strapped in does not mean the child will agree. There probably isn’t a child in the land who hasn’t at least once slipped out of their car seat or unclipped their harness to free themselves whilst the vehicle is in motion. Sometimes the first you, as driver know of this is when the child is pushing themselves through the gap between driver and front passenger seat.
The law on child seats and seatbelt wearing is compulsory. It is a good law designed to protect everyone travelling in a vehicle from harm. Like seatbelts, child seats are designed to offer comfort, maximum restraint, but also an ease of escape in times of emergency. Children often see it as a game to unclip or slide out of their restraint. In practical terms there is little that can be done to prevent this. You should not tamper the buckle eg by reversing the face or taping the buckle up. In the event of an accident and the need to unclip the child this could cause fatal delay. The best advice therefore is either aversion strategy ie distract the child so they do not get bored or alternatively refuse to drive on until they behave. Another technique is to stop the car when the seatbelt is undone to convince the child the car will not go unless all seatbelts are soundly fitted. Best of luck with these strategies. With a persistent offender you are going to need it!
Seatbelt & child seat laws exist for a reason – safety of car occupants. The rule is one person per fitted seatbelt or child seat. It is illegal to overload a car by having people sit on top of another person, sit in the footwell or inside the boot.