How safe are rear-facing car seats in a rear-impact crash?

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock 

While babies in Australia who are under six months must be seated in a rearward-facing car seat or infant capsule, just how effective are they in a rear-impact car accident? That's the question a team of researchers from The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Centre, set out to answer as part of a study published in SAE International - with reassuring results.

"Parents ask me a lot, because they are concerned about the child facing the impact of the crash," says lead author Julie Mansfield. "It shows parents are really thinking about where these impacts are coming from."

Although previous studies have shown that rear-facing car seats significantly reduce infant and toddler deaths and injures in both frontal and side-impact crashes, data on rear-impact collisions has been limited.

Julie Mansfield straps a doll into a car seat at Ohio State University.
Julie Mansfield straps a doll into a car seat at Ohio State University. 

While the US team notes that rear-impact crashes account for more than 25 per cent of accidents, according to Roads and Maritime Services, in NSW it's 35 per cent.

Researchers looked at the performance of rear-facing car seats in rear-impact crashes (of moderate severity) by conducting sled tests with different types of car seats. They explored factors including the effects of carry handle position, the baby's size and the presence of an anti-rebound bar.

And the findings were positive. "What we found aligns really well with what we know from crash data in the real world," Ms Mansfield says. "That was that rear-facing car seats protected very well in this crash condition.

"Even though the child is facing the direction of the impact, it doesn't mean that a rear-facing car seat isn't going to do its job. It still has lots of different features and mechanisms to absorb that crash energy and protect the child."

Rear-facing seats, Ms Mansfield explains, are able to support a child's neck and spine, keeping these vulnerable parts of the body well-protected. "These regions are especially vulnerable in the newborns and younger children whose spine and vertebrae haven't fused and fully developed yet," she says.

"Hopefully this data can help show [parents] that despite their child facing the direction of impact in this scenario, these seats still have the ability to keep their child very safe," she adds.

Ms Manfield also notes that parents should follow the recommended guidelines on the correct type of car seat for their child's height, weight and age.

Australian law states that babies under six months old must use a rear-facing car seat. According to KidSafe however, infants are safest if they remain these seats as long as they can fit in them. "While the law allows children over six months to use either a rear facing restraint or a forward facing restraint, the rear facing restraint offers better protection as long as the child fits in it," the organisation says.

Find more information about Australian car seat legal requirements here.