A recent undercover survey by Which? found that 90% of the stores it visited failed to fit child car seats correctly. Experts from the independent consumer watchdog visited 42 major retailers across the UK which offer a free child car seat fitting service. The experts asked each store to fit two child car seats: only four of the retailers managed to fit both seats safely and correctly. Worst of all, the survey found that several of the stores fitted the child car seats so badly that a child using them could be in serious danger in a crash.
I’ve had a couple of car accidents where I was driving with my children. I’m very aware of how things can change in an instant.
The first of these accidents was when my daughter was a baby and I was driving the long way home to get her off to sleep. As I indicated and slowed down to turn right a car smashed into the side of mine, careered off into a field and crashed into a tree. It turned out that the driver had accidentally accelerated instead of braking. Although my car was badly damaged thankfully nobody was injured. My daughter, cocooned in her car seat, didn’t even wake up.
The second accident was when I was driving my son to school on a cold winter morning and lost control on black ice. I wasn’t going very fast but the car started swerving from side to side and then rolled sideways onto a very thick hedge which miraculously saved us by pushing the car back onto all four wheels (I love that hedge). It was a terrifying experience and I remember thinking that we were going to die and feeling sad for our family. We were wearing our seat belts and luckily we weren’t injured although the car was a write-off.
So, I now have a big tank-like car (a Volvo XC90) with winter tyres. I’m a very careful driver and I’m boringly strict with my kids about wearing seat belts properly (in my car nobody’s allowed to do that thing where they put the seatbelt under their arm) and using the correct child car seats. When Which? asked me to publish this list of child car seat safety checks I said yes straight away. Here’s the list:
10 quick child car seat fitting checks
1. Is the seatbelt or harness secure and untwisted?
If your child car seat is secured with a seatbelt, this must be tight so the seat doesn’t move. To test this, try pushing down on the seat where your baby’s head would be if the seat is rearward facing, and pulling on the harness if it’s forward facing – you shouldn’t be able to move the seat. The seatbelt mustn’t be twisted anywhere around the seat.
2. If the seat is rearward facing, is the handlebar in the correct position as shown in the instructions?
For some rearward-facing child car seats, the handlebar may need to be in a certain position, usually upright or fully back, as it can offer added 360-degree protection if your vehicle turns over in a crash. Look at your child car seat’s instruction manual to find out where yours should be.
3. Is the child car seat sitting squarely on the seat of the car and is the headrest in the correct position, as shown in the instructions?
The majority of the base of the child car seat should be flat on the seat, sitting squarely and evenly. It shouldn’t be riding up, which can sometimes happen if the seatbelt is too short.
For most child car seats the headrest should be removed so it doesn’t touch the seat at all. However, some child car seats need the headrest to be attached – check the instructions to find out what is needed for your specific seat.
4. Is the seatbelt following the correct red or blue route guides?
Not having the seatbelt securely fitted into the blue or red route guides will weaken the seat’s protection. Check it’s right – red guides for forward-facing seats, blue guides for rearward-facing seats.
5. Is the seatbelt buckle in the right place?
The seatbelt buckle must not bend around the child car seat as this could cause it to fail in a crash. Only the seatbelt should be in contact with the frame of the child car seat.
6. For Isofix seats, do the visual indicators show it is fitted correctly?
Visual indicators should show you that the seat is correctly clipped into the car, for example sections may turn from red to green. Check the instructions to see what this should look like for your seat.
7. Is your Isofix drop-down foot securely on the floor and/or is the top tether firmly attached?
If you have an Isofix car seat, you will have either a drop-down foot, a top tether or both. With the foot, you must ensure it sits firmly on the floor, isn’t lifting the seat up and isn’t resting on underfloor storage, as this could make it less effective in a crash.
The top tether must go over the back of the seat and clip into the dedicated mounting point – be careful not to attach it to luggage hooks.
8. Have you removed any thick clothes?
Thick clothes such as bulky winter jackets could make the harness less effective, so take them off before putting your child in the seat.
9. For younger children, are the shoulder pads level with your child’s shoulders, and is the harness not too tight or loose?
The shoulder pads of the harness should be as level with your child’s shoulders as possible – if they’re in a rearward-facing child car seat, the shoulder pads shouldn’t be dropping down no more than an inch, and if a forward-facing seat, raising no more than an inch. The harness shouldn’t be too tight or loose – make sure you can get two fingers between the child’s collar bone and the harness and that there is no slackness.
10. For older children, is the seatbelt across their shoulder and hips?
If you have an older child strapped into a car seat with the seatbelt, this should sit on their shoulder. It shouldn’t cut into their neck or sit lower down on their arm. The lap part of the seatbelt should sit across their hips, not their tummy.
If you’d like to download a copy of the Which? 10 quick child car seat checks PDF image at the top of this page then click here.
Do you have any safety tips to add to the list?