What is the safest child restraint? It’s a question that’s frequently asked, but one quite difficult to answer.
The short answer is ‘depends’. The full answer is a little more complicated and nuanced. Ultimately there are many factors you’ll need to consider.
You could start by comparing all of the restraint makes and models on the market through a crash testing regime and judge them comparatively, but these would all be based on the same vehicle seat geometry and collision simulation.
The question then arises, would that accurately apply to your specific situation? Comparisons may help to some degree, but there are other factors that need to be considered.
What contributes to a child restraint being safe?
There is a short list of basics to consider:
- How it interrelates to your vehicle seat and equipment
- Harnessing at both lower body (hip area) and upper body (chest/shoulders)
- Appropriate harness positioning choices for different length/height of the child
- Side impact protection (Especially pertaining to the passenger’s head)
Relationship to vehicle
The child restraint you choose has to be compatible with your vehicle. Some incompatibility issues may be minor inconveniences, but others may affect your ease of use, functionality and collision outcomes. Only you can decide the compromises you’re willing to make, so whenever possible always deal with a retailer that has some experience of the make and model of vehicle you drive or one who is willing to place the product into your car so you can check all of the functionality aspects.
The harnessing systems of all brands and models are similar – design standards ensure that – but the big difference can come from how readily they adjust in daily use. Harnesses need to be adjusted each time they’re used; not once in a while, every time.
It holds true, and it’s supported by the decades of experience we have with the parenting community, that if a harness is difficult to use, it often won’t be used correctly. Please take the time to check that the harness operates easily and reliably on the product you’re considering. The harness is your first line of defence in safety and every other aspect relies on it being correct. It absolutely needs to be done right every time.
Being able to change the configuration of the harness to ensure it’s suitable for the changing needs of your child as they grow is an essential consideration. Configurations to accommodate your child growing or alternatively reverting to smaller sizes for younger or smaller children are important. The most common reconfiguration function relates shoulder strap height and the wider the variety of height settings a restraint has, the more it allows for appropriate harness set up.
Technology and design advancements mean side impact protection features are more comprehensive in contemporary models, offering higher levels of energy absorption and better positioning.
Naturally some products are designed with additional features that can offer additional levels of safety when compared to other products. However, most of the claims have not been directly tested in comparison to others and which product will provide the safest environment under specific circumstances is still largely a matter of guesswork.
Regardless of features, claims and their benefits, it is well recognised that most child restraints are, in some way, used incorrectly which can compromise their effectiveness and level of protection. Simply, you can put your trust in claims that a particular restraint is the absolute best, but if you’re not using it correctly all those benefits could account for little.
It is often said that the safest restraint is the one you have when you use it correctly. We’re not trying to be flippant or avoid answering the question that starts this article. We want to highlight an area of great concern – generally speaking the biggest problem with child transit safety in Australia is not the quality of the child restraint, but rather its incorrect use.
Australian and international standards aside, the most carefully designed and comprehensively equipped child restraint is useless unless it is correctly used.
Make a choice that will benefit you and your child and when you narrow down the list of the products you feel are appropriate, always focus on simplicity, functionality and ease of use factors.
Another thing to consider is that cushions, no matter how many are added, are not generally safety items. In fact, cushions can affect the safe use and operation of safety features like the harness! There’s a very good reason motorcyclists don’t have soft helmets, so remember that how something feels does not always match up with the safety it offers.
Extended use factors
Something else that can affect your choice is the product’s extended usable period. Rather than the number of years of use you can get with a multipurpose choice (‘convertible’) restraint; this refers to how well it adds value to safety.
There are two areas you’ll need to focus on:
- Extended rear facing (ERF) capability for infants and younger children (possibly up to 30 months)
- Extended six point harnessing capability (possibly up to 8 years)
Starting with ERF, all passengers are better protected if facing the rear during a frontal collision. While this may not always be desirable or practical for some parents when the child is getting larger, it’s known to be safest. However, when you’re considering ERF, also factor in other vehicle safety matters. For example, in a wagon anything in the cargo area not secured is a potential missile and facing the rear may increase injury risk!
A restraint comparison of a six point harness with a standard lap sash seat belt shows that the seatbelt sash is less likely to remain in a proper position. This is particularly so if the child is short, fidgets, falls asleep or any combination thereof. A six point harness is the most reliable in this respect and may provide piece of mind until the child is around 8 years of age – an enormous benefit over a standard lap and sash belt arrangement.
Let’s all travel safely.