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Safe and snug with new seat laws

Many innovations in road safety in South Africa have been recommended by the Automobile Association, sometimes decades before they were implemented. Did you know, for instance, that the AA called for a points demerit system for South African roads as early as the 1960s? One of the things we have focused heavily on over the years is improved safety for children in cars, and with the new child seat legislation having taken effect two months ago, we'd like to re-inforce why we think it is such a good idea, and outline what still needs to be done.

Even for a properly-restrained adult with six or eight airbags on call, a modern motor-vehicle remains a hostile environment in the type of severe frontal impact which is simulated in modern crash-test programmes.. If all goes to plan, the outcome for the occupants will still be severe bruising, possibly a cracked rib or two, or maybe a broken collarbone from the seatbelt. However, these can be regarded as 'minor' injuries, since such a crash is likely to have been fatal even for a driver wearing a seatbelt in a car built two decades ago. The improvements in passive safety equipment in cars have been paralleled by improvements in child restraint devices. 

Rearward-facing child seats, for instance, are a relatively recent development, but are a safety boon for babies and toddlers since they distribute the impact of a frontal crash over the child's full body profile to reduce whiplash neck injury risks. The implementation of standardised child seat attachment systems, such as ISO-fix, mean that a child seat can conveniently be moved from one vehicle to another, and installed securely without the risk of detachment in a crash.

A broad range of child seats caters for children of all ages meaning that, unlike 20 or 30 years ago, today's child can be transported safely in a seat appropriate to their age and weight, from birth right up until they are tall and old enough to safely use an adult seatbelt. The era of poorly-fitting seats and the dangerous 'hook over' type of child seat is, fortunately, in the past. But this technology is of little benefit unless its use is required by law and, until recently in South Africa, it wasn't.

With the implementation of the new child seat laws on 30 April this year, all this has changed. The fuss over the laws seems to have died down, and we hope this signals acceptance by the South African public.  But there still seems to be occasional confusion over what's required, so let's recap. Vehicle occupants are now divided into three categories: 'Adults' - those who are over 14 years or taller than 1.5 metres, 'children' - those who are between three and 14 years unless they are taller than 1.5 metres, and 'infants' - those under three years of age. If a seat is equipped with a seat belt, adults have to wear it. Children must be seated in an appropriate child restraint, or wear a seatbelt if no restraint is available and the seat they are occupying has a seatbelt. The law says that a seat without a seatbelt should not be occupied if one with a seatbelt is available, and it also says that if no seat belts are available, children should sit on the vehicle's rear seat, if it has one. In the past, infants were not compelled to be restrained in a safe and proper way, and the new laws have addressed that. They now have to be secured in an SABS-approved child seat, and this is a landmark change for all the people and organisations, including the AA, who have campaigned for this change for so long. 

But we should not stop there. As discussed above, there are many age- and size-specific seats available in which to transport infants, and as the law currently stands, it is not illegal to transport an infant in a seat which is inappropriate to their age or size. The AA's view is that now we have a basic requirement in place, this law should be refined in future to accommodate the typical range of body sizes between birth and three years, as has been done in countries like Australia. 

And there's a second, more complex issue: public transport vehicles. The law on restraining infants currently exempts infants travelling on these vehicles (buses, taxis and minibuses). On the one hand, it's easy to understand why: most public transport vehicles are not equipped to accommodate child seats, both in their configuration and their patterns of operation. Buses in South Africa are rarely equipped with seatbelts; in taxis, wearing rates are negligible, so it's unlikely their owners and drivers would look kindly on accommodating the requirement for infants to be restrained in a safe way. 

But on the other hand, public transport is an enforced economic reality in South Africa, not a mere transport choice as it is in much of the developed world where even individuals of above-average income might opt for a train or bus instead of driving their private vehicles. We now face a moral dilemma where the law compels a child from a higher-income family to travel in a proper restraint but allows poorer children to travel unsafely.   

The tension between the problems of public transport  b y road in South Africa and the moral requirement that all children enjoy the protection of law when travelling in a vehicle is probably the most difficult question ever to arise in road safety in this country, but it must be faced. The AA believes the answer lies in a change of culture in the public transport industry, a more modern approach to building public transport vehicles - especially buses - and a detailed consultative process. After all - infant passengers grow up to become adult ones.

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