Further information on Seat Belts

Child seats

Child car seat hire 2004 (From Which? Ltd)

• Problems when hiring in the UK
• Problems when hiring abroad
• What needs to be done…
• …and what is being done

Hopelessly out of date, broken, incorrectly assembled, and not one supplied with adequate instructions – when we hired child seats from 83 car rental companies in the UK, Greece and Spain in 2002, we were confronted with seats which put children’s lives needlessly at risk.

In the UK, we found several seats that would be unlikely to protect a child in a crash, and none of the outlets fitted the seat for us. In Greece and Spain, things were worse still, with some of the seats seriously damaged.

Some companies were happy to fit the seats for us, but several did so in a dangerously hapless fashion.
So far, so bad. We then gave our findings to the trade body representing the British car hire industry – the British Vehicle Rental and Leasing Association (BVRLA) – just in time to contribute evidence to a review of its code of conduct. We suggested that they should introduce car seat hire rules urgently. They suggested that they would rather put out a couple of new leaflets about child seats.

Problems when hiring in the UK

You’ll be lucky to find a hire company in the UK which will supply appropriate car seats. Less than half the outlets we visited were able to provide a child seat at all. Some seemed surprised that we should even ask, and suggested that we should buy a seat to go with our day’s worth of car hire.

Of the outlets that did have seats, only about half correctly matched the type of seat to our child – a 13kg three-year-old – and provided a seat that was in good condition. The rest were faulty or too old, and unlikely to protect a child in a crash.

Out of date

If you can’t find a seat for hire, you’ll have to buy one instead. Otherwise, you could face a straight choice between cancelling your travel plans and breaking the law. However, being forced to buy a seat might be a good thing. New seats have to pass modern safety tests – if they don’t, no one is allowed to sell them. But there’s no such law for hiring car seats, so hire companies can hand over any seat they like.
You’ll be lucky to find a hire company in the UK that supplies appropriate car seats
And they do. One outlet supplied us with a seat that was 12 years old. In safety terms, 12 years is a long time, and the seat predated modern standards by an age. Another provided a ten-year-old seat, and another a six-year-old one.

The oldest was a real museum piece – a seat so old that it predated the introduction of codes which show the date of manufacture. It also lacked vital warnings about how to use the seat in cars with airbags, which are mandatory on new seats. In fairness, we were warned by staff about using the seat facing rearward next to an air bag, and it was the only hire company to do so. However, that does little to compensate for hiring out an ageing and worn seat in the first place.

Assembly and installation
In a 30mph crash, a child can be thrown forward with a force of 30 to 60 times its own body weight. So it’s crucial that seats are assembled and installed correctly. But, as we found, some hire companies don’t seem to take that as seriously as they should.

On one seat, we found that the harness wasn’t fitted properly, and the shoulder straps were loose and not fed through the correct slots. No assembly instructions were supplied with the seat, so even if you suspected something was wrong, it’s difficult to see how anyone could be sure what needed changing.

And, if assembly was bad, fitting was worse. In fact, we didn’t find a single company in the UK which fitted the seat for us. This is an important point because it’s easy to install a seat incorrectly. A seat manufacturer’s survey of people who used their own child seat found that 37 per cent of child car seats were incorrectly fitted or were incompatible with the car. Similar local authority surveys put this figure as high as 50 per cent.
It’s a point that the BVRLA itself recognises – indeed, its advice to members hints that they ‘may find that staff are not sufficiently trained to install the seats’. If we weren’t talking about potential loss of life here, that would be laughable – seats are so difficult to fit that staff need training to fit them, but the same staff are handing over seats to customers, without even bothering to include instructions.

There are plenty of ways in which the installation of a seat can go wrong. But, even if you don’t have instructions to hand, there should be warning labels to prevent staff or customers making any big mistakes – for example, the label which tells you not to fit a seat facing rearward next to an air bag.
Problems when hiring abroad

To see if similar problems existed elsewhere in Europe, we picked two popular holiday locations in Greece and Spain, and set out to hire some cars. Both countries have more road accident fatalities than the UK, and the last thing you want to worry about when you’re in an unfamiliar car, driving on the right-hand side of the road, is the safety of the child seat.

At first, it seemed that the foreign rental companies were more helpful than the UK’s – 67 per cent of companies provided car seats in Greece, and 63 per cent in Spain. And, in stark contrast to the UK, several hire companies fitted the seat for us. The trouble was, the seats provided were in an even more parlous state than those in the UK – and when they were fitted, they were often fitted incorrectly.
Greece

In Greece, only ten of the 16 seats provided matched the age and weight of our child. Of these, three were unacceptably old and unlikely to protect a child in a crash. These old-fashioned designs for seat mounting allowed the seat to move around and the straps wouldn’t adequately restrain a child in a crash. Three hire companies fitted the seat for us, one of them incorrectly. And the one which installed the seat incorrectly made us, posing as naive customers, decide whether or not it was safe.

Spain
In Spain, six of the ten seats installed by the hire companies were fitted so badly that they would put a child in serious danger. And, as in the UK, there were worn labels, which might lead you to install the seat incorrectly. Worse, some seats were broken – they had broken belt clips, which could result in the belt coming loose completely. One seat we were offered also had broken polystyrene padding, which would be uncomfortable, especially for a child tired from a day on the road in hot weather.

Overall, the results in Greece and Spain were even worse than in the UK. We’re doing what we can to change things here, and we’ve passed on our findings to our contacts elsewhere in Europe to help them improve matters there.
What needs to be done…

The primary concern, of both the law and hire companies, should be child safety. Looking at the current setup, it’s difficult to believe that’s the case. So here are our challenges to government and to the car hire industry.
As things stand, hire companies aren’t obliged to provide a car seat, or to fit it if they do. In other words, if their customers have children, companies aren’t obliged to provide a safe vehicle for them. We think everybody should have a right to expect a car seat to be provided with a hire car if they request one.

If a company sells a seat, it must be certified to meet current design standards – and yet companies are allowed to hire out seats that are years behind modern standards. We think there should be an age limit on the seats hired out.

Once hire companies have fleets supplied with modern seats, they need to keep them in decent physical condition – with no illegible labels and no broken parts. The inspections should cover this as well.
We’ve seen that people – hire company staff or the general public – often fit car seats incorrectly. Hire staff need to know how to select and fit the appropriate seat for a particular weight and age of child – if they can’t fit their own seats safely, they shouldn’t expect customers to do any better.

Finally, we want instructions provided with every seat. They’ll help customers secure a child in the seat, and they’re vital if the seat is removed and replaced during the hire period.
…and what is being done

When we finished our research, we discovered that we were just in time to contribute to a review of the BVRLA’s code of conduct, which is supposed to ensure that its members provide a good service. Unfortunately, they were less than keen on our proposals.

The evidence we’ve found proves that there needs to be changes to how the car hire industry works. People need access to child seats and they need a guarantee that those seats are safe to use.

The BVRLA doesn’t agree. It thinks the decision to provide child seats is a ‘commercial’ one, which should be at the ‘discretion of individual hire companies’. But, of course, it isn’t merely a commercial decision – it’s a decision about the fundamental safety of the vehicle they’re hiring out to their customers.
No guarantee of safety

Similarly, the BVRLA is doing little to provide a guarantee to customers that its members’ seats are safe to use. It’s obvious from our research that strict rules and an inspection regime are needed to take dangerous seats out of circulation. But, again, the BVRLA doesn’t agree. It plans to amend two of its leaflets in the light of our research. That’s not good enough – we’re talking about how likely children are to survive car crashes, here, and leafleting seems a wholly inadequate response.

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Child Car Seats June 2003

Improving Standards

Current standards aren’t as strong as they should be, but they’re still a big improvement on a few years ago. If you need to hire a car seat, make sure it meets the current standard (ECE44-03). Our recent investigation (April 2003) found that many car hire companies were renting out-of-date seats. Likewise, if you’re dragging an old car seat down from the attic for a new family member, check it isn’t out of date. If it was made before 1998 and doesn’t have a label saying that it meets ECE44-03, buy a new one. In any event, it might be safest to replace it with one of our new Best Buys seats.

Follow our buying advice, and you should steer clear of the worst seats. However, for the car seat industry itself, there’s still a long way to go. We’re pressing for changes to make the minimum safety standard more demanding. And we’re working together with consumer groups across Europe and car clubs, such as the AA, to guide people towards the safest seats. Over the years, we’ve successfully influenced the development of car safety through a similar approach, with EuroNCAP crash tests. Our aim now is to transform the safety of child car seats in the same way.

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Child Car Seats, HireApril 2003

What Needs to be Done …

The primary concern, of both the law and hire companies, should be child safety. Looking at the current setup, it’s difficult to believe that’s the case. So here are our challenges to government and to the car hire industry.

• As things stand, hire companies aren’t obliged to provide a car seat, or to fit it if they do. In other words, if their customers have children, companies aren’t obliged to provide a safe vehicle for them. We think everybody should have a right to expect a car seat to be provided with a hire car if they request one.

• If a company sells a seat, it must be certified to meet current design standards – and yet companies are allowed to hire out seats that are years behind modern standards. We think there should be an age limit on the seats hired out. It would be simple to implement among BVRLA members – they are already required not to hire out cars which are more than three years old. BVRLA even insists on independent inspections of its fleets to check that they don’t. So how come it’s prepared to let its members hire out 12-year-old seats?

• Once hire companies have fleets supplied with modern seats, they need to keep them in decent physical condition – with no illegible labels and no broken parts. The inspections should cover this as well.
Proper fitting is vital

• We’ve seen that people – hire company staff or the general public – often misfit car seats. The hire companies need to stand up and take some responsibility here. Hire staff need to know how to select and fit the appropriate seat for a particular weight and age of child – if they can’t fit their own seats safely, they shouldn’t expect customers to do any better.

• Finally, we want instructions provided with every seat. They’ll help customers secure a child in the seat, and they’re vital if the seat is removed and replaced during the hire period.

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