Parents urged to use booster seats to keep young children safe

Strapping small children into regular adult seats can cause severe abdominal, head and spinal injuries.

Parents have applauded a change in the UAE traffic laws which penalises drivers if their passengers are not wearing seat belts and if children are not sitting in child seats. Pawan Singh / The National
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ABU DHABI // Parents are urged to not strap small children ­into adult seat belts because it could be fatal in accidents.

Experts warned against the common error and said children should be kept in booster seats until they have outgrown them.

Parents and drivers should realise that seat belts and child seats will save lives and reduce injuries only if they are used and sized correctly, said Robert Hodges, a driver education and road safety expert.

“Often, the child wrongly uses an adult seat belt at too young an age or too small a height, so the parent or child will put the diagonal belt under the child’s armpit, or will tell the child to ‘hold the belt down’,” he said.

“I have known parents who tell the child to put the downward diagonal belt behind the child’s back, reducing protection to that of a poorly-fitted lap belt only.”

Children who should be in a booster seat but are wearing only a seat belt are at risk of abdominal, head and spinal injuries.

“If the seat belt does not sit correctly across the rib cage and the pelvic bone, there is a risk that soft tissue in the abdominal region and the lower spine is damaged in the event of a collision,” said Dr Britta Lang, the UAE country director of Transport Research Laboratory.

“This is what we refer to as the ‘seat belt syndrome’ and happens, in particular, when only a lap belt is used.”

Generally, children need to use a booster until they are at least 149 centimetres tall and weigh between 36 kilograms and 45kg, according to non-profit Safe Kids Worldwide. For most children, they will be between the ages of 8 and 12.

Seat belts in cars have been developed with “the average adult” in mind, Dr Lang said.

“They best fulfil their function of spreading the stopping force needed to keep vehicle occupants in their seats after a collision across their body, for grown-ups,” she said. “Children are considerably smaller and hence the seat belt may not sit right across the rib cage and pelvis area.”

Child seat and seat belt rules vary around the world but authorities look at three key elements: age, weight and height, Mr Hodges said.

“A child has to be tall enough in the torso to be able to wear an adult seat belt,” he said.

“A child of over 1.35 metres in height will usually be safe enough using an adult seat belt. Under this height they must use a supplementary device such as a large child seat or a sit-on child booster seat.”

In the UAE, there is no law obliging young children to be strapped into safety seats.

“Introducing a law that prescribes the use of child seats is urgently needed,” Dr Lang said. “This must be coupled with education and awareness campaigns.”

There are many initiatives across the UAE that try to raise awareness about the need and correct use of child seats, including hospitals that give out baby car seats to new parents, she said.

Dr Reem Al Ameria, a certified child passenger safety technician and instructor, also warned of wrongly using seat belts.

“Recently, I noticed that my nine-year-old daughter had the belt behind her back while strapped in a booster seat,” said the Jordanian mother of three. “I told her of an incident involving a six-year-old girl in the US who was nearly cut in half because of a common seat-belt mistake. The girl’s seat-belt strap was behind her at the time of the accident.”

Dr Al Ameria, an Abu Dhabi-based car seat advocate, recommends a high-back booster seat with better side-impact protection and wants to see a child car seat law in place in the UAE.

“I would love to see a child car seat law tomorrow, but I must admit that I’m seeing more car seats while driving around the city,” she said. “I’m sure we’re in a much better place than before in terms of people’s understanding of car seats.”