Child restraint laws vary by province and of course, obeying them is a must. However, scientific research has shown that we need to do more - the priority should be on maximizing safety, not just avoiding tickets or fines. Current laws throughout Canada do not reflect what we know to be safest. Going above and beyond what the law allows is called "Best Practice". While some crashes can be unsurvivable, following these maximum safety measures give children the greatest chance at walking away from a crash with minimal to no injury.
Read on to learn about the stages of safety and when to transition between them...
After a child outgrows an infant car seat, the next step is a convertible or multi-mode car seat where continuing to rear-face is highly recommended until the car seat seat's rear-facing height or weight limit is reached, or age 2 at a bare minimum. Most car seats do allow for forward-facing at one year old and 22lbs, but some also have a "walking unassisted" rule and all have specific height minimums. For a child to legally forward-face, all of these requirements must be met, but scientific studies prove rear-facing is the SAFEST mode of travel for "as long as possible" due to incomplete bone ossification - when stretchy cartilage turns into hardened bone. By age 2, this process is only about 50% complete. By age 4+, ossification is nearing 100% completion, resulting in a fully reinforced spine and a significantly reduced risk of injuries such as internal decapitation. Upon impact in a crash, a forward-facing baby or toddler's head is strongly thrust forward, stretching the spinal cord more than it is able to safely withstand. In a rear-facing car seat, crash forces are absorbed & spread more evenly across the back of the car seat, cradling the child's body and keeping the spine in alignment with the neck.
Just about all of the convertible and multi-mode car seats on the market will accommodate rear-facing until at least age 2 and many more will fit your child up to 4, 5 or even 6 years old if you choose to rear-face for as long as possible!
What about their legs? The fear that a child's legs in a rear-facing position would be uncomfortable or risk being broken in a crash is a common concern voiced by parents. Most children are rarely bothered by a lack of legroom and will find safe and comfortable ways to sit, with their legs over the sides of the car seat, straight up the back of the vehicle seat or cross-legged. Rear-facing leg injuries are extremely rare but are much more likely to occur forward-facing due to the differences in crash dynamics.
More info: https://thecarseatlady.com/when-should-your-child-turn-forward-facing/
Ontario law simply states that a harness must be used until the child is 40lbs/18kg. Best practice recommendations go a few steps further: after the transition from rear-facing to forward-facing, a child should continue to use a harnessed car seat until at least 5 years old before transitioning to a booster seat. A booster seat uses the vehicle seatbelt to restrain the child rather than a harness and literally boosts the child up to properly position the seatbelt over the child's body. Seatbelts alone are designed for adults and do not provide adequate protection for a child's under-developed bone structure. As a child's bones mature with age, their clavicle, sternum and pelvis become strong enough to withstand crash forces using a seatbelt, whereas children younger than 5 are much better protected over a larger portion of their body by a 5 point harness.
How do you determine if your child is booster ready?
While 5 is considered minimum age for booster seat use, the majority of kids are actually closer to 6-7 years old before they can demonstrate the ability to use the booster seat and seatbelt in a responsible manner. Once a child is fully "booster ready", there is no evidence to suggest continued harnessing is safer. In fact, studies have shown that head excursion (forward movement of the head upon impact) is reduced in older children that use booster seats. It is possible for kids to outgrow the harness on some seats before being booster ready, in which case moving to a seat with higher harness height and/or weight limits would be a necessary next step.
Highback booster or backless booster?
Highback boosters are preferred for new or younger riders as they are more supportive, may provide additional side impact protection and the built-in belt guide in the headrest keeps the shoulder belt correctly positioned over the child's shoulder. Switching to backless should ideally occur when a highback is outgrown, or when a child can demonstrate proper use without the added torso support a highback provides. When considering either type of booster, take into account the child's age, height, weight and maturity level to ensure the seat isn't outgrown too quickly and will last until the child passes the steps required to use a seatbelt alone.
More info: https://csftl.org/harness-or-booster/
As previously mentioned, seatbelts are designed for adults and provide a poor fit for children. Many kids are taken out of boosters too early, often once they meet the age requirements in their province, but an ill-fitting seatbelt can result in severe injuries of the head, neck, spine and internal organs. Children need to pass what is known as the "5 Step Test" in order to graduate out of a booster seat:
More info: https://csftl.org/the-five-step-test/
In Ontario, age 8 or 80lbs or 4'9" (57") represent only the legal requirements for getting out of a booster. Passing the 5 steps ensures a safe seatbelt fit and provides the child with maximum protection during a crash. Height-wise, only about 25% of kids pass at 4'9" (57") - most will be several inches taller than that. This means that the majority of children are closer to 12 years old before they can SAFELY ride without a booster. It is also important to keep in mind that children may 5-step in one vehicle or seating position but not in another. There are a several boosters with limits up to 63" and 120lbs that will accommodate even the tallest and heaviest of kids. Always keep a booster handy for every vehicle your child (and their friends) ride in!
Given this information, many adults will question their own ability to use a seatbelt without a booster if they don't pass the 5 Step Test themselves - more info here: https://csftl.org/short-adults-seat-belts/
What about sitting in the front seat?
The safest place in a vehicle for any passenger is the back seat but this is especially true for children under the age of 13. The front seat airbags are dangerous for younger kids and can result in severe injury or death when they activate at speeds of up to 30 km/hour.
More info: https://csftl.org/the-back-seat-is-the-right-seat/