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Car seat anatomy: What to look for in a car seat

Cars, for the most part, aren’t meant for kids. Front-seat airbags, for instance, deploy with too much force and can be fatal to them, and seatbelts fit them poorly. As a result, children have become some of the most at-risk road users. According to the World Health Organization’s 2018 Global Status Report on Road Safety, road and traffic injuries top the list of causes of death for young people aged 5 to 29 years worldwide.

Recognizing this, the Philippine government put in place a law that seeks to keep young passengers safe. Under Republic Act 11229, or the Child Safety in Motor Vehicles Act, parents are required to fasten their kids in child restraint systems as soon as the vehicle’s engine is turned on.

Car seats also have to be of excellent quality. Only units that clear crash testing and satisfy strict international standards, as adopted locally by the Department of Trade and Industry, will be allowed on the road. Substandard car seats, after all, will defeat the purpose of the law.

The implementing rules and regulations of RA 11229 , which will outline in detail how the law is supposed to be enforced, are expected to be finalized by mid-November, and full implementation of the law will take effect in a year’s time.

Until then, consumers are left with the task of making sure that the car seats they buy will pass the new law’s requirements. These are some of the key safety features that they can’t do without.

CRS shell

1. Shell

The hard, outer shell of a car seat acts as its skeleton, giving it shape and structure. Typically made of dense polypropylene plastic or metal, it determines the general conformation in which the car seat will cradle its occupant. The shell also absorbs some of the forces of car crashes and, in the case of rear-facing units, helps keep the child’s head upright.

Aside from the car seat’s scaffold, the shell can also help parents determine whether their kids have outgrown their car seats or not. When the child grows to be about within an inch of the top of the shell, then it may be time to graduate from a rear-facing to a front-facing car seat.

CRS Paddings

2. Paddings

If the shell is the skeleton, then the paddings are the muscles and fat of the car seat. These typically consist of energy-absorbing foam and soften the blow of a collision, absorbing and dissipating the energy of the impact. Paddings also act as an additional protective layer between the child and any intruding body.

Some child restraint systems come with supplementary paddings. These are especially useful for very small infants, for whom the straps of the car seat would otherwise be too loose. In the case of side impacts, paddings add extra protection especially in the head and neck area, where the shell may not be at its thickest.

CRS Harnesses

3. Harnesses

Car seat occupants are kept in place by a webbing of straps and harnesses. These function to prevent the children from flying off in the event of a collision, averting any serious injuries. Newer child restraint models will likely come with five-point harnesses, so named because the straps attach to the car seat at five different locations: one at each shoulder, one at each hip, and one between the child’s legs. This is safer than the traditional three-point system because it provides greater lateral support to the occupant.

The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) lays out very specific requirements for car seat harnesses. Different car seat categories, for example, have minimum strap width prescriptions. The webbing also has to prove its strength in several load-bearing tests; different breaking points are set for certain car seat categories.

CRS Buckle

4. Buckles

Buckles help the harnesses do their job. The tongue, attached to an opposite strap, slots into the buckle forming a junction in the webbing. This is usually positioned over the child’s body, improving the car seat’s overall safety.

The UNECE likewise lists specific standards for buckles. They should, for instance, remain closed at any position even when under tension, but still be able to release with a single operation of a button or something similar. The release mechanism should be red and no other part of the buckling system should be of this color. It should also be impossible to leave the buckle half-engaged.

CRS Warnings

5. Safety labels and instruction manual

Unlike the other listed items above, these safety features have less to do with the car seat occupants and more with the adults attaching the devices. Safety warnings alert parents to the risks associated with child restraint misuse and the potentially fatal dangers of placing car seats, (especially the rear-facing ones) in the deployment range of airbags. At least one such warning label should be visible at all points during use of the unit, regardless of configuration.

Car seats, as per the UNECE, should always come with instruction manuals written in the language of the country of distribution. Among other things, the manuals should include detailed and illustrated instructions for use, the size group of children for whom the car seat is intended, and proper cleaning and maintenance information.

Short of driving a car directly into a thick slab of concrete, there’s no real way to find out whether a specific car seat unit will keep its occupant protected or not. Survivors of a collision are determined after the fact. So, child restraint systems typically come equipped with many different safety features, each with its own role to fulfil.

This makes choosing a car seat much more difficult, especially in a still-deregulated market that allows substandard units to exist alongside quality ones. The five safety features listed are some of the most indispensable and should help parents filter through their options.

This story was produced under the Road Safety Journalism Fellowship carried out by VERA Files and the World Health Organization under the Bloomberg Initiative for Global Road Safety.

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