car seat legislation: the law relating to height, weight and age made easy

As a single mum and a lawyer, I had no idea before my little one came along that I would struggle to find the right car seat and I certainly had no idea how complex the legislation in this area would be.

As mum to a 10 month old baby, I have recently had to address this issue as my daughter is now over 9 kgs in weight. So, standard car seat or i-Size car seat? That was the question.

At the beginning with a new born baby, the world of car seats is simple. It’s easy to find a suitable car seat at this stage. The confusion begins when you start to think about the next stage of car seat or using the correct terminology, the next “Group” of car seat. When will I need to change my new borns car seat? Does it have to be iSize compliant? Can I buy a car seat that will last through childhood? How do I avoid buying multiple car seats for every stage of development as they don’t come cheap.

I have to say that this article could not have been written without large amounts of personal research, carried out to ensure that I am not breaking the law by using a car seat that is the wrong size for the weight, height or age of my child. It was a minefield for me as a lawyer so I thought I would try to help road users and parents by writing this in the hope that it will assist in clearing the minefield that is the law on the use of car seats by explaining the position as it stands today.

European Directive 2003/20/EC

In 2006, European Directive 2003/20/EC was adopted by the UK.

Put simply, this changed the law regarding the use of child car seats in the UK and this remains law today although this will change in the next few years.

This Directive states that all children travelling in a car must use an appropriate car seat until they are either 12 years old or 135 cm in height, whichever comes first. After this, the child can use a normal adult seat belt.

So, first things first, we know when our children are born that they need a car seat or booster until they are around 12 years old or 135 cm in height. Simple?

Not so simple.

All car seats used in the UK must pass certain European safety standards before they can go on sale. Sounds easy enough as presumably, the car seats we are all looking at in the shops wouldn’t be on sale in the UK unless they conformed to these standards.

In addition, as things currently stand, your child must remain in a rear-facing car seat until they are at least 9 kg in weight. After they reach 9kg in weight, the car seat you choose for your child and the way in which they must be restrained in it will depend on their weight. Confused yet? Let’s make it simple.

Children under the age of 3

All children under the age of 3 must travel in either a rearward facing car seat which is properly fitted and your child should be strapped into the car seat with a 5 point harness or impact shield.

The following table sets out the current requirements in relation to weight-based car seats:

Child’s weight

Car seat

0kg to 13 kg

Rear-facing baby carrier or rear-facing baby seat using a harness

9kg to 18 kg

Rear or forward-facing baby seat using a harness or safety shield

15 kg to 36 kg

Forward-facing child seat (high backed booster seat or a booster cushion) using a seat belt

In addition, parents must be aware that it is illegal for a child to sit in a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat if the front passenger airbag is active. So you can either de-activate your front passenger airbag which means that you will have to re-activate it when you have an adult passenger in the front passenger seat or you can choose to place your baby in his/her rear-facing baby seat in the back of the car where you can’t easily see him/her. Choices, choices.

I always found that having my little one in the back was much easier than having to deactivate and reactivate the airbags. However, I did find this slightly disconcerting when my baby was asleep in her car seat in the back of the car alone and frequent stops were made to check on her. Call it ‘new-mum syndrome’ but with all the hype about the risks of leaving our children in car seats for more than 2 hours whether asleep or not, I wasn’t taking any chances.

Disabled children

The same rules apply for disabled children or children with certain medical conditions but they are permitted to use a disabled person’s seat belt or a child restraint designed for their needs if this is necessary.

Doctors can also issue an exemption certificate if a child is unable to use a restraint or seat belt because of their condition.

Exceptions to the current rules?

There is one exception to the rules in that children under the age of 3 can travel without a car seat or a seat belt in a taxi or licensed minicab if there is no child seat available but they must sit in the back of the car.

However, contrary to popular belief, it is illegal for a child under the age of 3 to travel in a normal car without a car seat even if the journey is unexpected or unplanned.

Children aged 3 to 12 years (or 135 cm tall)

Yes, you guessed it. All children from 3 years to 12 years old (or 135 cm in height) must use the correct car seat.

The table above sets out the correct type of car seat according to their weight.

Exceptions to the current rules?

Once again, children aged between 3 and 12 years old can travel in a taxi or licensed minicab if a car seat is not available. However for this age group, a seat belt must be worn.

If your child needs to travel in a minibus, if a child seat is available, your child must sit in it. However, if no child seat is available then it is your responsibility as the parent to provide a car seat if you want to ensure that your child sits in one. This is not the responsibility of the mini bus owner or driver although it is legal for an adult seat belt to be used instead of a car seat in a minibus for this age group.

In relation to normal cars (not taxis, licensed minicabs or minibuses), if there is no car seat available, children can use an adult seat belt if the journey is:

  • Unplanned
  • Necessary
  • Over a short distance (although there is no definition of the term ‘short distance’)

But if you are unlucky enough to be caught taking your child to nursery or school without using the correct car seat then please note that such trips do not fall within the definition of “unexpected journeys” even if you are called to pick your child up at an unexpected time.

In addition, if you have three children all requiring car seats that need to go into your car, and it is not possible to fit a third car seat in the back seat of the car, a child over the age of 3 can sit in the rear, in the middle, and in-between the two children in the car seats using an adult seat belt. This is legal but not recommended unless it is absolutely necessary as car seats have been proven to be so much safer for the child than seat belts.

Whilst I am in danger of stating the obvious, it is also illegal for you to drive with more passengers in your car than there are seat belts. So even if you have four children who fit comfortably in the back of your car, you can only drive with three of them in the back as there will usually only be three seatbelts.

Changes to the law in 2016

Have you heard of the new i-Size legislation and wondered what it’s all about? Yes, me too.

The aim of this legislation is to make it easier for parents to choose the right car seat. But will it achieve this objective? Let’s take a look.

i-Size legislation was introduced in July 2013 and refers to the European Standard ECE R129 which states that all children, regardless of age, should remain in a rear-facing car seat until they are over 15 months old (ie) Group 0+ and Group 1 seats. This therefore takes the emphasis off the weight of the child and basis it on their height instead.

Parents buying an i-Size seat should be aware that the seat they buy must be suitable for the height of their child even if he/she is over 15 months of age.

The new regulations also require greater side-impact protection in order to assist in the protection of your child’s head and neck in the event of a collision.

It is worth knowing that the laws relating to i-Size car seats are still being developed and it is very likely, therefore, that additional laws relating to the use of i-Size car seats in relation to children older than 15 months, will be introduced over the next few years. Watch this space for more updates.

For the time being, however, the new i-Size legislation came into force in the UK on 27 March and 1 April 2015 but, importantly, it does not replace the old legislation set out above. i-Size legislation runs concurrently with the old legislation. For the time being at least. The rumour is that this legislation will not replace the old legislation until around 2018 allowing time for there to be sufficient i-Size car seats in circulation and for our cars to become i-Size compliant.

Yes, you guessed it. To have an i-Size car seat, your car must be fitted with ISOfix anchor points as i-Size car seats can’t be attached to a car using a seat belt. So, if you don’t have ISOfix points in your car (which is unlikely if it is an older model) then you won't be able to use a new style i-Size car seat with your current car.

So will I need to buy a new car as well, I hear you ask…the answer to that is that this will not be necessary at present. Why? Because you will still be able to buy car seats that are approved under both the 2006 regulations and the i-Size regulations. Sounds ridiculous doesn’t it? But there we have it.

I hope that this has helped to explain the current position in relation to the law on car seats and that road users and parents will find this useful.

As it is the responsibility of the car driver to ensure that all children under the age of 14 are using the correct restraint, I recently bought a car seat for the next stage of my little one’s development. I can confirm that it is not an i-Size car seat but is a forward facing car seat now that my child is over 9 kg in weight. This was because I do not have ISO-fix anchors in my car and I don’t intend on buying a new car for that purpose, at least until the current legislation becomes obsolete and is completely replaced by the new i-Size legislation described in this article.

Drivers face £100 Fixed Penalty Notice or higher fines in court if they do not ensure that the children they are carrying comply with the regulations. Therefore if you are facing criminal allegations of this nature and need advice and assistance or if you are unsure about how to interpret the legislation and find yourself in difficulty regarding which car seat to buy to ensure that you are not breaking the law, please contact the specialist driving offence team at Burton Copeland on 0161 827 9500.

You may also find the following links helpful:

BBC Coverage

The AA coverage