The current method of carrying young children (less than 4-6 years old) in cars is to have a special car seat fitted in the back seat. This has several significant problems:
- It takes significant space in the back seat. The child seat is going to add at least 10cm to the length required in the back seat and often drives the purchase of larger cars (including SUV and 4WD vehicles that are known for being unsafe – especially for children). Having child passengers in a car is a great distraction for the driver, driving a large vehicle increases the difficulty in avoiding accidents – especially when parking.
- The seat belts of the rear seats are used as part of the mechanism of attaching the child seat to the car. Seat belts are designed to stretch in a crash. It’s recommended that after a crash all seat belts that were used to secure people or objects be replaced as they will have stretched. Seat-belts that don’t stretch will cause more serious injuries. It seems likely to me that a seat belt used to tightly secure a child seat for a long period of time will stretch without a collision. Therefore if an older child is seated where they (or another child) used to have a child-seat then they may be at greater risk in the case of a collision.
- Child seats should be fitted by specially trained experts if they are to be safe. The majority of seats are not correctly fitted and put children at needless risk (the cost of getting an expert to do the installation is small).
Some car companies are offering child “booster seats” that are an optional attachment to the rear seat (I first noticed this when reviewing the specs of the latest version of the car I drive – the VW Passat ). This is a good idea, but it doesn’t go far enough.
The best thing to do would be to provide a selection of back-seat assemblies as factory fitted options which have built-in baby and child seats. The combinations that would be most desired are:
- Standard car back-seat for three adults (or two adults for a small car).
- A regular seat (for an adult) at the road side of the car combined with a baby (backward facing) seat at the kerb side.
- A regular seat (for an adult) at the road side with a young child (forward facing) seat at the kerb side.
- A baby seat at the road side with a young child seat at the kerb side.
- Two young child seats.
It would be quite possible to have all five of these options available from the factory. Of course there are corner cases that this doesn’t cover such as twins or parents who have two children so close together that they need two baby seats. For those cases option 2 combined with one of the current off-the-shelf baby seats would do. The number of different supported options would need to be kept reasonably small to reduce manufacture cost and to allow a reasonable market for second-hand seats.
One thing to note is that it’s recommended that the first forward-facing seat a child uses is smaller than the later one. Having options for three different built-in baby/child seats (rear-facing and two sizes of forward-facing) would significantly expand the number of combinations (and thus the expense). I suspect that the safety benefits of having an ideal method of securing a forward-facing child seat would compensate for the disadvantage of having it be too large for the child when they are first placed in it.
Another possibility would be to replace the rear seat with a more solid bench with bolt holes for baby and child seats. Securing a child or baby seat to a hard surface with bolts would be a much less technically demanding task than using a seat belt (and thus could be done correctly without expert assistance). Child and baby seats would have to be redesigned for this (I suspect that the safety of them relies on being attached to a soft surface), but after that I expect that safety would improve. For this option the rear seat could bold on to a hard surface that’s suitable for attaching child/baby seats so it would simply be a matter of removing the rear seat and installing the child/baby seat(s). The most common car design in Australia includes a 60/40 split rear seat (meaning that if you have a large item to store in the boot/trunk then you can fold down 40% or 60% of the back of the rear seat to allow the luggage to extend into the passenger compartment). This split could be extended to allow removing the base of the rear seat for 60% or 40% to bolt on child/baby seats.
Once a car model had been designed for replacing the rear seat there would be other options available. For example replacing the rear seat with luggage storage space. While almost all cars allow folding down the backs of the rear seats to store extra luggage the option of removing seats that you don’t need to give even more space is not common at all (I’ve only seen it advertised as a feature in vehicles with 6 or more seats).
I expect that if this idea was implemented it would allow a small car such as a Toyota Corolla to give an equal or greater amount of usable space for children in the rear as a larger vehicle such as a Toyota Camry. While better options for luggage storage would allow people who don’t have children to use a small car while still being able to carry the luggage that they desire. This would allow considerable savings on car purchase prices and fuel use. I expect that a reduction in fuel use world-wide could be achieved by removing the pressure on parents to buy large cars!
The poor support for child seats in cars is really surprising. One of the features that could be introduced is both top and bottom mounts for such seats. There is apparently a standard for this, some (not all) cars support it, but most baby seats apparently don’t. So baby and child seats are secured at the top (to a hook that’s bolted securely to the car frame and which was designed specifically for the purpose) and at the bottom to the seat-belt which was never designed for such things.
It’s a pity that some of the money spent on supposedly protecting children from drugs couldn’t be spent on making cars safer for them. The government is in the best position to force car manufacturers to improve their safety features while parents are in the best position to teach children about the dangers of drugs.