Car restraint age 'must rise'

BELT UP: The Trueman family, including mum Sue, Kale, 8, and Ellie, 5, support using car seats for kids beyond the legally required age of 7.
BELT UP: The Trueman family, including mum Sue, Kale, 8, and Ellie, 5, support using car seats for kids beyond the legally required age of 7.

Children should have to travel in car seats until they turn 12, say researchers appalled at New Zealand's child-injury levels.

They describe government efforts to promote child safety in cars as "tepid" and say that, instead, the onus should also be on doctors and hospital staff to educate parents, who are often confused by the plethora of child restraints on the market.

Last year, mandatory use of car restraints was extended, with all children required to use a seat until their 7th birthday.

But studies have shown that, for maximum safety, children need to sit in a booster seat until they reach 148cm - a size not normally reached until about the age of 11. A group of paediatric specialists, including University of Auckland lecturer Bridget Kool, have called on the Government to follow Canada and many European countries, including Britain, in setting legislation at this limit.

New Zealand has the third-highest child road death toll in the OECD, they say in this month's New Zealand Medical Journal.

Sue Trueman, Plunket's car seat hire manager for Wellington, is well aware New Zealand's car restraint laws do not align with international safety regulations. Both her children, Kale, 8, and Ellie, 5, would be in booster seats until they were 148cm, she said.

The national Plunket organisation said it was very supportive of raising the minimum age, as current laws gave parents a false impression that an 8-year-old without a booster seat was as safe as an adult.

But the Ministry of Transport said its decision to raise the mandatory age to 7 was a pragmatic one based on how much it would cost families. It estimated parents would have to pay more than $10 million in the first year if the age were raised to 11.

Trueman found families going to Plunket were often unsure what their child needed at which age, such as when they graduated from a rear-facing to a front-facing seat. "I thought of myself as a well-educated parent, but even I came to Plunket to get everything double-checked." The NZMJ article calls for GPs, midwives and other public health service workers to advise parents on safety recommendations.

But Miramar Medical Centre GP Joanna Joseph said groups such as Plunket, which had ongoing relationships with families, would be far better. "If a parent asked, I would give my opinion. But I don't think we're the best ones to advise families - we don't necessarily see them at the right age." In a separate article in the same journal, Lynne Bilston of the University of New South Wales, highlighted recent survey results showing that up to two in every three children travelled in the wrong car seat for their size.

The Injury Prevention Research Centre director said one factor was the range of child restraints sold, some certified by Australasian standards, others by American or European standards.

The standards were often inconsistent, making it difficult for parents to choose correctly, she said.

Baby on the Move Wellington South owner Juanita Murphy said parents to whom she sold car seats could find the different standards "very confusing". She would personally oppose any move reducing consumer choice. She said she preferred initiatives encouraging parents to have their children's car seat fitted by trained specialists such as herself, educated in the various overseas standards.

Ministry of Transport transport safety manager Leo Mortimer said changing the rules to require only the Australasian standard to be sold was "thoroughly investigated" a decade ago.

The benefits were found not to justify the costs, which could require vehicles transporting children to be retrofitted with two-strap seatbelts, he said.

The Dominion Post