By Christina Campbell
Although most Canadian parents turn their children’s car seats forward-facing at one year, Helena Sergakis, mom of James, 4, and Finley, 11 months, of Halifax kept her eldest son rear-facing until 20 months and plans to do the same with her youngest child until he’s at least two. “When James was 14 months old, we were in a rental car that had a pre-installed forward-facing car seat, even though he still rode rear-facing in our own car. I remember sitting in the back with him and I just had this gut feeling that it didn’t look safe.”
While proper installation and securely strapping children in are essential to safe travel, a majority of parents are unaware of the benefits to keeping children rear-facing for longer than one year. In fact, one recent study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) found that children who ride rear-facing between the ages of one and two are more than five times safer than their counterparts who ride forward-facing.
David Amirault, director of engineering and design at the carseat manufacturer Dorel Juvenile Group, is hugely in favour of the findings from a U.S. study based on U.S. crash data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and nods to Sweden, where extended rear-facing has been in practice for several decades. “The vast majority of crashes are frontal (head-on). So when you’re rear-facing, you have the entire car seat protecting the body and absorbing the energy from the crash,” he explains. Children who are forward-facing end up absorbing most of the energy through the harness system, with the ribs, pelvis and sternum taking much of the pressure. The AAP study also debunks the myth that riding rear-facing in a crash will result in leg injuries if the child’s legs reach the seatback.
Kristen Gane, a spokesperson with Safe Kids Canada, recommends that parents leave their children rear-facing past one year of age provided the car seat will accommodate their height and weight. Car-seat laws vary by province and territory, but most require children to remain rear-facing until 20 pounds and at least one year of age. “Many parents seem to be in such a rush to turn their kids, but the research is pretty definitive that they’re better protected if they stay rear-facing for as long as possible.”
As for protests that might arise from the back seat? “Now that he’s forward-facing, James still hates the car seat,” says Sergakis. “So I don’t think that cries of boredom are a valid reason to compromise on safety.”
Regardless of which direction children are facing, Transport Canada reports that, overall, in the one-to-two-year category 43 percent of child restraints are improperly installed.
Alan Blundell, a senior child restraint technician instructor trainer at St. John Ambulance, says misuse ranges from not tethering a forward-facing seat to incorrectly attaching the seat to improperly securing the child in the restraint. Extreme cases include children riding in adults’ laps and car seats that are not attached in any way to the car. “Infants and small children whose musculoskeletal systems have not yet fully developed can be very seriously injured or killed in a collision,” says Blundell. “The neck and spinal area are particularly susceptible to injury.”
When shopping for a car seat, find the best fit for your child and your vehicle, says Amirault. “Some products might be more expensive because of convenience features like headrests that move up and down,” he says, “but not because one is safer than another.” Plus, stay away from expired car seats, which may become more brittle over time and susceptible to breaking. And never use a car seat that has been in a car crash, even a minor one.