The new rules are a step forward for child safety in Australia. Some lives will be saved. But how far forward have the new rules taken us? Experts overseas claim Aussie kids remain second-class citizens on road safety – despite the new laws.
Lotta Jakobsson Ph.D., M.Sc., is Volvo Car’s top biomechanist in charge of the company’s accident and injury prevention analysis. We meet in her laboratory in the company’s headquarters in Gothenburg, Sweden. Jakobsson is a world-renowned automotive child safety expert. She claims the new Australian regulations continue to place Aussie kids at unnecessary risk for three reasons: First, the laws mean we will turn our children around so that they’re facing forwards far too early in life. Second, the Australian legislation means children from the age of eight years will sit in adult seats when they should still ride in booster seats until at least age 10 or 11, and third, Australian regulators continue to refuse to allow parents access to the world’s best practise child seat fixation system, called Isofix.
“An adult’s neck is around five times stronger than a three-year-old’s,” says Jakobsson. “An even younger child’s neck is much weaker even than a three-year-old’s. The earlier you turn a young child around, the higher the risk that massive loads on the neck during a crash will cause unsurvivable injuries. I really don’t think it’s a good idea for children under three or four to face forwards in cars.”
Jakobsson says the deceleration during a serious frontal impact (”the most common kind of serious crash”) causes the child’s head to weigh many times its usual weight. “You simply get to a point where the structure of the neck can’t withstand the loads imposed,” she says. “The under-developed muscles, ligaments and bones get overloaded quite quickly. In many severe frontal crashes the adults might walk away relatively unhurt, but forward-facing children might not survive.”
To illustrate this point, she hands me a 12kg helmet designed to illustrate how unstable a child’s head is in relation to an adult’s. Wearing it you feel instantly as if your neck is no longer stable. The helmet has two large handles at the side. “You might want to hold onto those,” says Jakobsson. “For your own safety.”
In a forward-facing child seat, the child’s torso is held in place, but the head is free to move. The weakest link is the neck. When children face the rear, however, the imposed crash loads – the increased weight of the head – is supported by the structure of the seat, not the neck. “You know, there’s no secret why NASA places the astronauts rearward-facing in spacecraft,” says Jakobsson. “It’s better to support high loads on the head with the structure of the seat than through the neck.”
The proof of this pudding is in the numbers. In Sweden, with a population of nine million, just five children have died in frontal crashes in almost 50 years. In Australia, we lose 80 children annually – though not all of those die in frontal crashes. Clearly the numbers prove the Swedes are doing something right.
We move to a storage facility inside Volvo’s normally off-limits Safety Centre. It’s a repository for wrecked Volvos recovered from real-world crashes. Thomas Broberg, Volvo’s senior technical advisor on safety, takes me to a wrecked XC60, which he tells me was involved in a high-speed crash (with another, older Volvo … after all, this is Sweden). It’s a serious hit, in which the two cars met head-on, each at an estimated 65km/h. The bonnet is folded in half; concertina-ed up at more than head height. The front wheels have moved back into the guards. The headlights, bumper and grille are simply gone. The radiator and air-conditioning condenser are a press-fit into each other and also the engine and transmission, which have themselves slipped their moorings and moved back to accommodate and absorb the crash loads … a combination of very smart engineering and energy management that means the passenger compartment is remarkably intact.
“There were three people in this car,” says Broberg, “including a father driving and an 18-month-old child in a rear-facing child restraint. Everyone in the car escaped without injury, but I would not like to think about the likely outcome for the child if the seat had been the forward-facing kind.”
I ask Broberg if this child would have died in an Australian child seat. “Of course you cannot say for certain what would have happened, but I think the risk of serious neck injury, forward-facing in a crash like this would be quite high.” Unsurvivable injury? “Possibly. Yes.”
In Lotta Jakobsson’s laboratory she explains what happens when an average eight-year-old sits in an adult seat, in an adult seat belt – something permitted under the new Australian child restraint laws: “Well, their legs are quite short and the seat base is quite long in comparison so they slide forward in the seat to get their lower legs over the leading edge. That means the lap part of the seatbelt rides up over the abdomen, which is very dangerous.”
Okay, so what’s the problem exactly? “The seat belt is designed to ride over the bony part of your hips, supported on the pelvis. If it rides high and sits across your abdomen and you crash, you’re at risk of suffering severe soft-tissue injuries. You can bleed to death internally before you get to hospital. This is why children should sit in a booster seat until the age of 10 or 11 – a booster seat is designed to ensure the right geometry for the seatbelt.”
Jakobsson says children do not fit safely in adult seats until they are about 140cm tall – a height which eight-, nine- and even some 10-year-olds are yet to reach.
Then there’s the child seat itself. Australian Standards-approved child seats face forwards and use the ‘top-tether’ attachment method together with the adult seatbelt to secure the seat in the car. If it’s fitted correctly, an Australian ‘top-tether’ seat provides reasonable crash protection – albeit forward-facing.
Fitting a top-tether seat is often fairly complex, however. Unfortunately, many parents grapple with the process and get it at least partly wrong. Numerous surveys have shown as many as two-thirds of parents fit the seats incorrectly – predisposing their children to a bad outcome in a serious crash. In other words, two-thirds of Australian children are currently riding in cars with their safety seriously compromised – first by facing forwards, and second, by riding in a seat that’s improperly secured.
It doesn’t have to be this way. There’s a better child seat fixing system, called Isofix. It’s a system designed by the International Standards Organisation (hence the ‘Iso…’ name), of which Lotta Jakobsson is a member. “Isofix is an international standard child seat attachment system,” she explains. “It’s designed around two standardised seat mounting points built into every new car. It’s used in Europe, Asia, North America and Canada.” Lotta Jakobsson is surprised when I tell her using an Isofix child seat in Australia is illegal.
I’d never fitted an Isofix seat before visiting Sweden. But I’ve now tried it. The verdict? Dead simple – almost idiot-proof. A simple-to-fit base clicks into the Isofix mounting points – there is no possibility of getting it wrong. And the child capsule clicks into the base – also an idiot-proof connection, not to mention about three times quicker than Australia’s outdated top-tether system.
Isofix is a better system because it dramatically reduces the chance of fitting the seat badly. Most new cars in Australia are landed in the country with the Isofix mounting points already in place, yet parents are not even afforded the Isofix option, because using an Isofix child seat is illegal in Australia (because Isofix does not comply with the Australian Standard, which calls for the top-tether attachment system).
The regulators claim that putting Isofix on the shopping list for Australian parents would cause undue “confusion”. A case could be put, however, that two-thirds of Australian parents are already overly confused – or at least unwittingly ignorant – when it comes to fitting a child seat. The bottom line is that allowing Isofix would go a long way to protecting the two-thirds of children driving around right now with their safety compromised via poorly fitted child seats.
While the new child restraint rules will save some young lives, ongoing regulatory arrogance in Australia will continue to add unnecessarily to the death and injury toll among our most vulnerable passengers, at least until the legislation is further upgraded to meet world’s best practice standards.