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More driver compliance needed to ensure proper child safety in cars

Too many children remain unrestrained in proper child restraint systems (CRS) in vehicles in South Africa. This situation requires better traffic law enforcement and better education of drivers on the necessity of CR systems. Although CRS usage appears to be increasing, too many people are relying on seat belts to restrain children, which is neither legal nor safety appropriate.

This is one of the findings from the AA’s 2022 Child Restraint System Study released earlier this week. The observational research conducted earlier this year reviewed CRS usage of 1000 children at various shopping malls in Gauteng. The full AA Child Restraint Study 2022 is available here.

The study revealed that although CRS usage appears to be increasing, it is concerning that a third of children are still travelling completely unrestrained. It also found that although 46% of children between the ages of five and 12 were not restrained, “… it is possible that, as these children fall into older age categories, parents may discontinue the use of CRS”.

While it is encouraging that laws on CRS exist in South Africa, a review of the current laws that determine CRS usage based on age is needed. We believe the height and weight of children (babies and toddlers) should be the determining factor rather than age given that children of the same age may differ significantly in size. It adds that the age factor may be determining seat belt usage instead of usage of proper CR systems.

It may be said that seat belts offer better protection than not wearing them, but they are less effective in reducing child fatalities or injuries in the event of a crash. CRS has been shown to reduce injuries in children aged 5-9 by 52% while safety belts reduce injuries by only 19%. It must also be noted that while flawed, the South African legislation currently prescribes that children aged three years or younger must be secured in proper CR systems.

Our CRS study further shows that women tend to use CRS for children more frequently than male drivers. The study notes that a possible explanation for the differences “… could be related to men and women having different levels of concern, driving behaviours, and perceptions of risk”.

Another critical factor in terms of CRS usage is enforcement and fines for non-compliance. In South Africa, the fine for non-compliance is R250 while in other countries it can be beyond R9000, which sends a clear message that not using CR systems is a grave offence.

We are of the view that iIf we are to curb the deaths of children in our country, a similar clear message must be sent locally.

The research also revealed that while most drivers understand the importance of wearing a safety belt while driving, 74% of drivers were observed using safety belts when travelling with an unrestrained child. This indicates that the drivers take their own safety into consideration but neglect the safety of the child or children they are travelling with. A possible reason could affordability and the belief that seat belts are viable alternative.

This finding indicates that a lot of education still needs to be done about the importance of CR systems, and that it is not only the driver who needs to be protected but also the passengers.

According to the Road Traffic Management Corporation (RTMC), 30% of fatalities on South African roads in 2020 were passengers in vehicles. Of the 30% of passenger fatalities, 4% were children between the ages of 0-4, 4% between the ages of 5-9, and 5% between the ages of 10-14.

It should never be accepted as normal for an adult to be travelling in a car with a child who is not restrained, even if it’s a short trip to the shops. The fact remains that it is dangerous. Child restraint systems have been developed specifically to protect infants and children from getting injured in motor vehicles by restraining their movement in the vehicle. Along with better law enforcement and more punitive fines, we urge all drivers to protect their children and put them in proper CR systems wherever and whenever they are travelling.