4 minute read
The forces involved when cars crash are beyond most peoples’ imagination. I remember once seeing a video that showed the impact of a 60kph car crash is comparable to a person falling from a four-storey building.
We all know children must be properly strapped into a car restraint that’s right for their height. If a crash happens, the restraint’s harness will limit the chance of injury under such strong forces. Restraint design is based on scientific principles and extensive research for optimum strap and buckle placement. Restraints that meet standards, like Australian Standard 1754, are among the most carefully designed of all consumer products. Correct fitting is essential, but restraints must also be used with care.
A dangerous accessory
A relatively new child restraint accessory is causing concern for potentially serious injuries. Head straps, available mostly through online platforms, are marketed as devices to prevent young children’s heads from slumping forward and rolling around as they sleep while seated in a fitted restraint.
Some parents and carers are concerned that a child’s head rolling, such as when sleeping, is undesirable and possibly unsafe. Product marketing highlights this issue and claims to address such concerns.
But I and a number of leading experts hold serious concerns about the safety of such head straps. There is strong evidence that use of these products with young children can lead to serious lifelong injuries or death.
The head straps are sold separately from restraints themselves, as aftermarket accessories. No restraint supplier would include them or recommend their use, and published safety standards do not provide for any kind of head restraint.
Studies have shown the majority of consumers assume that if a product is on the market, it must be safe. This is a false assumption. Regardless of warnings provided with the restraints themselves, many consumers will use the head straps. This is more likely when head strap retailers claim safety benefits and state their straps have been safety tested.
These head strap accessories, intended for children aged one to four, are relatively new to the market. Direct correlation with injury data is not easy to find, however the level of hazard is assessed as significant.
A head strap can slip or drop to be around the child’s mouth or neck during a vehicle crash. One fatality by strangulation has been reported in the United Kingdom, after the strap slipped in a rollover incident.
Of greater concern is the likelihood of a strap affecting the head movement during a vehicle collision, even at low speed. If the strap holds a child’s head back, even for a fraction of a second, it could be enough to alter the alignment of his/her head, neck and spine, while the torso moves forward first. This significantly increases the risk or serious spinal cord injury and possible death of the occupant.
“There are several delicate ligaments that are critical for spinal stability that could be torn, not to mention the potential for multiple fractures, especially on the back side of the spine where it is compressed. Once the sling slips off, the head will make the range of motions that it would have made from the start, without the sling. The concern is that the head and neck will go through an even greater range of motion since the head was briefly held back when the torso began moving forward. Whenever there is increased motion on the neck, there’s an increased risk of a very substantial spinal injury.
I can’t stress this enough – holding the head back, even for a millisecond, while the torso moves forward with great force in a frontal crash, is going to harm the neck. The physics of this are dangerous and potentially even fatal.”
I’m pleased to see that the 2023 draft revision of Australian Standard 1754 has proposed an explicit warning be added that states: IMPORTANT: Do not use any accessory with this child restraint that directly restrains or stops the forward movement of the child’s head or neck. Anyone can write in support of this change during the draft standard’s public comment stage, which is open until 21 August 2023.
I urge all parents and carers with young children in their car not to use these head straps.
There’s many organisations around the country working to ensure child car restraints are correctly fitted. Some restraint fitters and safety educators have begun warning new parents not to use the head straps.
I encourage all fitters to use the face-to-face opportunity with parents and carers to educate and warn them directly about head straps.Gail Greatorex
Call for a ban
Ideally, being able to set (and test to) performance criteria would enable these products to be designed safely and be sold with confidence. However, until such criteria and testing are available, the only way to properly address this serious hazard appears to be a ban under the Australian Consumer Law.
Correspondence signed by ten safety experts was sent to Minister Stephen Jones and the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission in April this year seeking urgent action to ban these straps. I hope such a ban will soon be introduced.