Can you trust a retailer to fit your child’s car seat?
I read a statistic recently, which sent a shiver down my spine:
One in three car accidents occur within a mile from home.
Although the majority of these are minor accidents, it resonated with me because I had been driving around locally with my daughter in a car seat which I felt had not been fitted correctly (see below). I realised that, like me, busy parents may be more likely to take a chance if they are only driving locally. The problem is that even at 30 mph, a child is at risk of suffering serious brain injuries and spinal cord damage if there is an accident and their car seat has not been correctly fitted.
In my previous blog, I wrote about the risks of using an inappropriate car seat and the tragic case of Emma Hughes, a 3-year-old child who suffered serious brain injuries as well as sustaining severe spinal injuries in a road accident. Emma’s mother was sadly found partly responsible for Emma’s injuries because she placed Emma in a booster seat for which she was too young and not tall enough.
In this blog, I discuss the risks of injury to children placed in an incorrectly fitted car seat, and how to ensure your child’s seat is fitted correctly. However, before I get on to that, it is worth mentioning that the law in relation to the use of booster seats has recently changed.
Change in the law – booster seats
New laws came into force on 1st March 2017 preventing the use of backless booster seats for children shorter than 125cm or weighing less than 22kg (previously children weighing just 15kg could use a backless booster seat). This change is due to concerns that booster seats are unsuitable for younger children because they are not as secure as a car seat and offer little protection in a crash. The difference a car seat can make as opposed to a booster seat is demonstrated in this video.
Bizarrely, parents who already own an existing booster seat will not face any punishment for using a backless booster seat, as the new rules are directed at manufacturers and retailers.
The new rules also state that children are required to use car seats until they are either 12 years old or 135cm (4ft5in) tall, whichever comes first and child car seats must have one with a diagonal seat belt, unless the seat is designed for lap belts or has isofix anchor points.
Undercover investigations into car seats fitted by retailers
In 2014, the consumer service, Which, carried out an undercover investigation which revealed that a staggering 90% of child car seats fitted by retailers in their investigation, failed to fit car seats correctly. This is terrifying because if the car seat is not fitted correctly, it will not react as it should do in a crash, therefore, the child’s safety cannot be guaranteed.
A year later, in 2015, a BBC Watchdog investigation visited 10 stores across the country, belonging to five major retailers: Halfords, Mothercare, John Lewis, Smyths and Toys R Us. They secretly filmed staff fitting their own brand car seat. Only one store out of 50 fitted the car seat correctly. They recreated some of the worst fitting mistakes and tested them in a crash which you can view by following the link. Watching the crash dummy being thrown around is harrowing to watch because if that were a child, he or she would likely suffer devastating brain and spine injuries. The video is just under 12 minutes long. I urge all parents to watch the video as it packs a powerful punch and brings home just how important it is to get it right.
My own experience of the fitting service at Mothercare
Having carried out extensive research on car seat options for my 15-month-old daughter, I decided to purchase a well known brand of rear-facing car seat. I chose this particular seat because it performed well on safety testing and it was suitable for rear facing until the age of four. Due to my job as a child brain injury solicitor, I am all too aware of the devastation that can occur when a child is injured in a road accident. For this reason, I decided to purchase the car seat from Mothercare, rather than the cheaper option of buying online, because I wanted to take advantage of their fitting service. I wanted to have the peace of mind that an “expert” had fitted the car seat. I did not want to take any chances with my daughter’s safety.
I noticed very quickly that there was a lot of lateral movement in the seat. This was so extensive that my daughter being thrown from side to side every time we went around a corner or drove up a kerb. I returned to Mothercare and demonstrated the extensive lateral movement, as I was easily able to rock the seat from side to side. I was told that the seat was a “bit loose” but it was safe and had been fitted correctly. The assistant agreed to “tighten” the seat which reduced the amount of movement, however, it was so tight that it was difficult to access the front of the seat in order to press the release button in order to get my daughter in and out of the seat, and she had nowhere to place her legs.
I returned to Mothercare a second time and to my horror, I was informed that whoever had adjusted the seat had not returned it to its correct position, (the supporting leg was not at the correct angle and the base of the child seat was raised off the seat of the car). The assistant agreed that the seat had been fitted too tight into the back seat. The seat was adjusted a second time and we were back to square one with the seat rocking wildly from side to side at the slightest bump. I went back to Mothercare a third time and asked for my money back. They were initially reluctant to give me a refund because they said there was nothing wrong with the seat. I was assured that the manufacturers have put the seat through rigorous safety testing and that the level of movement in the seat was safe. I insisted that in my opinion, my daughter was at risk of a brain injury in the event of a crash, as she would be thrown around excessively.
I have spoken to Car Seat Safety about my experience and I have also sent a written complaint to Mothercare because I am concerned that this could happen to someone else.
What can you do to make sure your child is safe in their car seat?
Following my experience with Mothercare, I will never again blindly hand over something as important as my daughter’s safety to someone else. I will read all of the boring instructions and watch any online videos to make sure I am confident that the seat has been fitted correctly. I have also made a note of general things to look out for:
- Make sure the seatbelt is not twisted
- Route the seat belt as per the manufacturer’s instructions
- Ensure the seat is secured in place tightly with no gaps between the child’s car seat and seat of the car (this may mean the headrest has to be removed)
- If using a seat belt, remove all slack in the seat belt so that it is tight around the car seat
- The child seat should be at least 3 fingers width from the front seat
- The buckle of the harness must be clear from its frame once done up because otherwise it could snap open in an accident
- The harness inside the car seat should be pulled tight, with no more than two fingers space under the shoulder straps at the collar bone
- The buckle on the harness should be across the child’s pelvis, not resting on his/her stomach
- Check the harness and chest pads are adjusted according to the manufacturer’s instructions
- In relation to a baby carrier, pull the handle forward so that it can act as a roll bar in the event of a crash
If you are concerned about the way your child’s car seat has been fitted, you could contact one of the following for advice:
- Your local Council’s road safety department – they may offer checks in your local area
I am a Partner at Bolt Burdon Kemp specialising in Child Brain Injury claims. If you would like advice about making a claim on behalf of a brain-injured child, contact me free of charge and in confidence on 020 7288 4854 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for specialist legal advice. Alternatively, you can complete this form and one of the solicitors in the Child Brain Injury team will contact you. You can find out more about the team.
 Hughes v Williams & Williams  EWCH 1078