We know that small children should be traveling in a rear-facing position. This is set out, for example, in the R-129 (i-Size) approval standard, which makes it compulsory for all child restraint systems approved by R-129 to face this way until the child is 15 months old. However, up until what age should they travel this way? Is 4 years old the maximum age at which they should travel facing the rear or should they do so for as long as possible?
In Sweden it is widely known that children should travel in a rear-facing position. “If you ask a parent in Sweden to describe what a child car seat is like, 95% will tell you that they are rear-facing seats”, pointed out Tommy Peterson, Director of the Crash Test Laboratory of VTI (Swedish National Road and Transport Research Institute) and Manager of the Plus Test during the ‘1st Rear-facing Day’ recently held in Spain
In Sweden child restraint systems are approved under European legislation (R44/04 and R-129) but this does not go far enough for them, since it does not deal in detail with the forces that are exerted on the child's neck. Therefore, the country also provides the Plus Test stamp, which is optional for child seat manufacturers but means that the CRS in question is especially safe. In this test, rear-facing seats are the standout winners (take a look at the Plus Test and the seats that have received this stamp here).
In terms of what different international bodies have to say on this topic, Fundación MAPFRE's document entitled ‘Estudios de sillas para los niños en coches’ (Studies on seats for children in cars) has compiled detailed information on opinions and assessments of rear-facing child car seats and all of them agree that children should be traveling in a rear-facing position for as long as possible, providing that the child's condition and physical characteristics allow for it.
While forward-facing child car seats prevent up to 75% of injuries, rear-facing child seats can prevent up to 95% of them. Why is this the case? In a rear-facing seat the child's weight falls against the child seat's backrest but this does not occur in forward-facing child seats. A seat which is in a rear-facing position absorbs the energy of the impact within its own structure.
This video clearly explains the big difference this makes in a rear impact. We also discuss in this article how rear-facing seats are also safe in side impact and head-on collisions:
FOR HOW LONG SHOULD WE BE USING REAR-FACING SEATS?
At Fundación MAPFRE we recommend that the child travels in this position until they are 4 years old at least, and if the child's physical condition allows for it, for as long as possible. We should bear in mind that a baby's head is proportionally much larger and heavier than the rest of their body. While an adult's head accounts for approximately 6-8% of their total body weight, a child's head can make up as much as 25% of their total body weight.
Furthermore, the bones and muscles in their neck have still not developed enough to be able to support the relatively heavy weight of their head. Added to this is the fact that their head circumference is still developing together with other aspects such as their weight or height as the child grows.
The neck is also the area which suffers most in any kind of impact. Therefore, adults usually suffer from whiplash. In the case of children, the consequences can be much worse precisely because of their heavier head and the fact that the spinal column is not fully developed yet. We should also point out that the harnesses firmly secure the child in place and only allow the head to move in traffic accidents.
The car manufacturer Volvo, also Swedish, is quite clear that "children should be traveling in a rear-facing position for as long as possible. It is a good idea for children to use rear-facing child seats until they are three years old, although they should use them for even longer if possible". In fact, this car manufacturer emphasizes that although children cannot sit in these seats with their legs fully extended, their safety is not compromised in any way.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has recently changed its recommendations in this regard. It previously advised that children should be traveling in a rear-facing position for their first year of life, and now it recommends they do so until they are at least 4 years old. In fact, they point out that it not only protects the child's neck and head, but also their arms and legs given that the seat prevents the child from flying forwards.
The World Health Organization (WHO) has compiled information on the difference between traveling in a forward-facing position and in a rear-facing position in a CRS, as well as the likelihood of injury if the child is only using a seat belt or if they are in a child restraint system. The data shows how a child up to 4 years old has a 50% lower risk of injury in a forward-facing CRS and an 80% lower risk if the child is in a rear-facing seat (table from the manual entitled ‘The need for seat-belts and child restraints’, by the WHO).
We should recall that children should be traveling in a child restraint system. At Fundación MAPFRE we recommend that they continue using them until they are 150 cm tall, as established in European Directive 2003/20/EC.
Knowing how important it is for children to be traveling in rear-facing seats, the market currently offers Child car seats of this kind for children up to 25 kg and 120 cm tall, enabling the child to travel in this position until they reach this weight and/or height.
In this infographic we provide you with key information on traveling in a rear-facing position:
Lastly, this video also demonstrates the difference between traveling in a rear-facing position and not doing so: