01.Isofix child restraints coming to Australia
The Australian Standard for child restraints in cars is currently under review, and will likely allow the use of an international child restraint system where seats clip into attachment points manufactured into cars, called Isofix, from 2013.
“The next update will incorporate Isofix,” confirms Craig Newland, chair of the committee for the Australian Standard for child restraints for use in motor vehicles. “We just want to make sure there’s compatibility with vehicles on the market. We don’t take any backwards steps in child safety.”
Isofix-type child seats are used in Europe, the US and Canada, and enable seats to be quickly secured without using seat belts. At this stage it’s not known whether the new system will be backwards-compatible with old cars or seats in Australia.
There have been calls for the introduction of Isofix in Australia for some time. Professor Lotta Jakobsson, technical specialist at Volvo Cars Safety Centre in Sweden, was in Australia earlier this year advocating for this. But while Isofix’s incorporation into the Australian Standard will provide greater choice for parents, it isn’t necessarily safer than the current system.
“When Europe introduced Isofix they were coming from a lower safety base than Australia currently has. Our incremental jump in safety improvement isn’t going to be nearly as big. The main benefit is around reducing incorrect fitting,” says Newland.
The new system will not eliminate the need to professionally fit seats, however. Newland says: “It won’t solve all misfitment problems as it hasn’t been shown to do so overseas. In the US they’ve done studies to see if their incorrect installation rate has dropped. The improvement wasn’t dramatic.”
Prof Jakobsson also called for the introduction of rear facing child seats for children up to the age of four. The resulting coverage included claims that Australia’s child restraint standards are less safe than their European and American equivalents.
In the US, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued advice earlier this year suggesting children should be in rear facing restraints until the age of two. In Jacobsson’s native Sweden, children are generally rear facing until the age of four. The Australian Standards allow for rear facing restraints for children up to four years of age, but there are no such seats currently sold in here.
There are a number of reasons for this. A major issue is space. “Putting rear facing seats in the back makes for very little room, especially in some vehicles with reduced space in the back. My understanding is that in Sweden they put the seat in the front seat of the vehicle, which isn't permitted in Australia, and besides that, it means you can only have one child seat in a car at a time," explains Mike Lumley, technical director of manufacturer Britax.
Australian safety experts also say that forward facing children from the age of six months in Australia are safe, largely due to the top tether system mandated by Australian Standards.
“The issue is that the Australian Standard is very different to the international one,” says Christine Erskine, Executive Officer Kidsafe NSW. “We have different tether straps. It’s not a problem here - we can be confident that a child over six months can face forward.”
Professor Lynne Bilston of Neuroscience Research Australia, University of New South Wales, is one of Australia’s top experts in the field. She says the controversy is due in part to a lack of understanding of the local context. “Researchers have been looking for evidence of a problem in Australia for decades and there just isn’t any. On the contrary there are many cases of infants in forward facing restraints who are the only survivors in crashes and are unharmed,” she says. "There has not been a serious injury to a child in a forward facing restraint that wasn’t a result of gross misuse of the restraint. In terms of whether it’s essential for [Isofix] to be offered, my personal opinion is it’s fine to have it, but I have no concern for forward facing as long as [people properly] use the top tether."
Dr Stuart Newstead, Senior Research Fellow at Monash University Accident Research Centre, agrees. “Car companies wheel in foreign experts who don’t have an understanding of our local context and they say things that aren't appropriate to our environment. The motivation is very noble, but some balance and consideration of all the factors needs to happen. It’s alright to be altruistic, but if that ultimately leads to a sub-optimum solution we’ve all lost,” he says. “There are also other mitigating considerations. When children are older they may get distressed sitting backwards. If that’s causing distraction to the driver then that’s a safety concern in itself.
"Our seats are some of the only ones in the world with a top tether, which provides more stability. The Swedish argument is valid, but the statistics don’t support it as being a problem in Australia. Generally children in rear facing restraints are extremely safe... even with current misuse we don’t have high rates of child mortality, it’s not an epidemic because we have very good legislation and people are generally very compliant," says Dr Newstead.
Prof Bilston says parents should be more concerned with properly fitting restraints and ensuring older children are kept in booster seats longer. “Parents don’t need to panic about whether they need to keep their child rear facing. There are other priorities, for example, there are a lot of children not using a booster seat, even though they need one for secure seat belting until they are up to 12 years old. The biggest risk to children in Australia is misuse.”
To check on child restraint requirements for your state or find a professional child restraint fitter, visit Kidsafe.