The rules around car seat safety

Published on Wednesday, 07 August 2019
Last updated on Tuesday, 31 December 2019

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We think of car travel as a fairly pedestrian way to get from A to B but the road can be a dangerous place and it's essential that adults protect children from the impact of accidents.

In fact, every time you get behind the wheel with a child passenger, you're legally obliged to buckle them into an approved child restraint or seatbelt that is appropriate for their age. This applies whether you're driving your baby around the block, taking a toddler to playgroup or taxiing schoolkids to Saturday sport, so let's investigate the different rules and options around in-car child restraints.

What are the age requirements for child restraints in vehicles?

Under New Zealand law, all children aged seven and under must use a correctly secured and approved child restraint that's appropriate for their size and age.

The NZ Transport Agency (NZTA) says that once a child turns seven, they should stay in this approved child restraint, if the vehicle has one, or else be buckled into any child restraint or seatbelt that's available. From the age of eight to 14, each child must use a safety belt if available, or travel in the back seat.

It's recommended that babies are kept in a rear-facing restraint 'until as old as practicable' (at least until they turn two); and when it comes to older children, international best practice recommends your child uses a child restraint or booster seat until they're 148cm tall or turn 11.

What happens when children ride in taxis and buses?

The law states all children must be buckled into an approved child restraint, however there is an exception around passenger service vehicles such as taxis, shuttles, or buses. If an appropriate child restraint is available, then your child must use it, but if there isn't one on board, then buckle them into a safety belt instead where available.

What type of restraint does your child need?

There are different types of rear- and forward-facing restraints, depending on your child's age, weight, height, and developmental stage.

According to Consumer, your child is safest in a suitable-sized car seat until they reach the upper weight or height limit for that seat. Here are the different options from birth the big school:

Your child's age Type of child restraint Practicalities
From newborn to approx. 10 to 13kg Baby capsule A baby capsule comes with a convenient carry handle and many are designed to keep babies safely rear-facing until they're 13kg (and around two years of age).
From newborn to 18kg Convertible rear-facing/forward-facing car seat With a harness, this car seat can be transformed from rear-facing for a baby to forward-facing for a toddler, and it has the room to keep a child rear-facing for longer.
Toddler and preschooler age from 9 to 18kg Forward-facing car seat With a harness, this option suits a child (up to about five years) who has outgrown their rear-facing seat, but is too small for an adult seat belt and booster.
Toddler and preschooler age from 9 to 26kg Convertible forward-facing car seat/booster seat By removing the harness, this seat converts from a car seat to a booster using an adult seatbelt.
Older child from 15 to 36kg Booster seat A booster seat can be used up to about 11 years of age and it raises your child's body so the adult seatbelt fits across them safely. It's strongly recommended that you don't use a backless booster seat (which are not approved and provide no side-impact protection).

What is an approved child restraint?

By law, young children must travel in an approved child restraint and this means that the restraint has met one of three Standards:

  • A joint NZ/Australian Standard (look for a red and white 'tick' logo)
  • A European Standard (look for an 'E' in a black circle)
  • A US Standard (look for a yellow and black logo with an 'S')

Meeting a Standard means that the restraint has passed stringent safety tests, but even the best child restraint won't provide the best protection unless it's properly secured in the car.

NZTA says eight out of 10 child restraints aren't installed properly, and a bad fit can put your child at risk of serious injury or death in the case of a crash. This means you should either have an expert install your child restraint or closely follow a video guide to make sure you're fitting the restraint correctly.

What else should you look for when choosing an approved child restraint?

When you buy or hire a child restraint, the compliance Standard isn't the only thing to keep an eye out for. The child restraint needs to fit your child and your car well, everything must be in good working order, and Consumer also recommends that you look for these things in your child's restraint:

  • A locking clip that holds the adult seatbelt tight
  • A tether strap to stop the child restraint tipping forward in a crash
  • Well-padded side wings to protect your child in the event of a side-on crash
  • A reclining seat function to help your child fit and sleep safely in the seat
  • A height-adjustable seatback that can be raised as your child grows taller, but remains under the weight limit of the restraint
  • An Isofix and LATCH which 'snaps' a child seat into the rear-passenger seat frame of some modern cars to securely install it
  • Lining which can be easily removed and washed

Once you've decided which approved child restraint suits your needs, Consumer also advises you to:

  • Buy or hire the restraint several weeks before you need it, so you can get used to installing it properly
  • Buy the restraint new, rather than second-hand, so you know that it hasn't been in a crash or deteriorated over time
  • Install the restraint before you pay for it to ensure it fits your model of car

They also urge parents not to install a rear-facing restraint in the front passenger seat if the airbag cannot be disabled. In fact, even if the airbag can be disabled, research shows that children are safest in the back seat.

The responsibility for children's car seat safety rests with the person behind the wheel. As a driver, make sure all child restraints are approved, correctly secured and the right size for young occupants. Car safety is an essential part of the parenting journey, so drive responsibly and always buckle up along the way.

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