Why Rear Facing Is Safer
Sadly most babies in the UK will only use their rear facing infant car seat for a year or even less. All nursery stores sell forward facing car seats that can be used for babies who weigh over 9kg, which is roughly nine months. Most parents think that this is the only option once their baby no longer fits in the infant carrier, some even think that moving their baby into a big forward facing seat is a milestone to look forward to. But in the event of a car accident a young child is five times more likely to be seriously injured or killed in a forward facing car seat than in a rear facing one.
Babies And Small Children Are Not Little Adults
A baby's head accounts for 25% of its body weight, while an adult's head is only 6% of the total body weight. And children's bones are still very soft, it takes about 15 years for the human skeleton to fully mature. The development of the skeleton happens at roughly the same rate in all children, no matter how big they are, so a bigger baby is no safer in a forward facing seat than a small one of the same age.
The human spine is made up of 24 vertebrae, seven cervical (neck), 12 thoracic (upper back) and five lumbar (lower back) ones.
The photo on the right shows the vertebrae of a one year-old on the left, and those of a six year-old on the right. In a one year-old each vertebra consists of three pieces of bone which are connected by cartilage. The vertebrae start to fuse together at the age of three, when the small bits at the bottom fuse together. It takes until they're six years old for the three pieces of bone to form a sold 'ring' around the spinal cord. The picture on the left shows where in the body these bones are located.
The bones in the neck of a small child are not developed enough to protect the spinal cord. When they are involved in a car crash in a forward facing car seat, the weight of the head combined with the immature skeleton, can cause the spinal cord to stretch up to two inches. If it stretches just half an inch it will snap. This is known as internal decapitation and causes paralysis or death.
A toddler's ribs are also very soft. In a forward facing car seat the force of the crash throws the child forward while the five-point harness holds the torso back in the seat. This can bend the ribs and damage the child's internal organs.
What Happens In A Crash
In a forward facing seat the torso is held in place by the harness, but the head, arms and legs are thrown forward with great force. In a rear facing seat the whole body is protected by the seat's backrest which absorbs the impact, protecting the child's delicate head, neck and spine.
In a crash at 50kmh, the neck of a forward facing child is subjected to loads of 180-300kg. In order for a child to avoid injury, these loads should never exceed 130kg. In a rear facing seat the neck loads are only 40-80kg.
Using a rear facing car seat reduces the risk of serious injury or death from 40% to just 8% compared with a forward facing seat.
Extended Rear Facing Car Seats Are Nothing New
The idea of transporting young children rear facing in the car was conceived by Professor Bertil Aldman of Chalmers University in Gothenburg, Sweden in the early 1960s. He was inspired by the moulded seats astronauts used for take-off and landing, which protected their head, neck and spine. He designed the first rear facing child car seat in 1963.
Since 1965 all Swedish children have been travelling rear facing in the car until they are at least four years old, and the results speak for themselves. Here in the UK about 200 children are seriously injured in car accidents every year and a further 21 are killed. On Sweden's roads deaths and serious injuries in children under five have been virtually eliminated.
Between 1992 and June 1997, only nine properly restrained rear facing children died in car crashes in Sweden, and all of these were involved in catastrophic crashes with few or no other survivors. Between July 2006 and November 2007 not one child under the age of six died in Sweden due to a car accident. And their car seats continue to achieve the same fantastic results, year after year.