If you are a regular reader of my columns, by now you would have figured out that I have a two-year-old son. And while this might seem like a highly convenient plot device, the kid genuinely enjoys cars. He gets fascinated to see different cars land up at home every week and particularly enjoys going for a drive. He might be little but he always wants to drag me to the car to go for a drive. While I don’t take him for a drive every single time, there are times when I’m stepping out and just take him along.
However, what I find even more interesting is that when we do go out, the child, who is all of 26 months right now, very obediently gets into his child seat. He is not told to do so. He knows that if he goes in a car, he has to sit in his seat. Ever since he was a baby, my son has always been in a child restraint system, initially a baby carrier, then rearward-facing ‘Group 0’ seats for children below 10 kilograms and now forward-facing ‘Group 1’ seats. And he gets upset if I don’t strap him into his six-point harness when I’m dropping him to my mother’s house, which is a three-minute drive from my place, screaming out ‘Belt, Belt’, and you know what? He is right. Nowadays even for that short drive, he is always secure in his own seat in the car.
Not about affordability
It is shocking that few Indian kids today are in child seats. And it is not a question of affordability or non-availability of seats, although the latter was an issue during the early days of the pandemic and my wife and I had to jump through hoops to get child seats for our son in mid-2020, but we managed some good deals. In fact, a couple in Gurugram from whom we bought an almost brand new seat said that they could never get their daughter to use it. My son loves that seat.
Go to any major e-commerce site, or even baby and children’s stores in malls and all of them have child seats and baby carriers available. And while there are several types available, the best ones usually can be used for multiple age/weight groups allowing you to use the seat for five-six years before moving to a simple booster.
Basic seats are available for under Rs 5,000, and the top-end ones cost Rs 25,000 in India. Imported ones from top Western brands such as Britax and Maclaren (not the racing team) can set you back up to Rs 50,000. However, for those of you willing to buy a lightly used seat on second-hand selling groups, primarily on the Meta platform, you can get some very good deals indeed. Keep in mind, though, that some of the protection such as the thermocol padding can deteriorate over time and seats have a finite shelf life, even then they can be used for 3-5 years.
So it is not a question of affordability or availability. Yet, when I take my son to his pre-school, I find that he is one of maybe 20 percent of children who come to school snug and secure in a seat. When I drive past parents who take their children to school sitting in the front seat, sometimes in the lap of the driver, my heart sinks. It is not for me to comment on others’ parenting for the most part, but as someone who writes about cars and motoring as well as automotive safety, I do judge parents, particularly those in fancy luxury cars who do not put their children in seats. ‘They don’t like it’ is hardly an argument. My son does not like having medicinal syrup, believe me it is a task to give him medicine. But we still do, just like millions of other parents across the world.
Child in seat is a must
It is not safe to keep children not secured in a car today. If any Indian parent went abroad and tried a stunt like having a child sit on a driver’s lap, they might find themselves crying at an Indian embassy or high commission because their child would have been taken away by child protective services.
In many countries across the world, a driver, whether a parent or not, can be found criminally liable if their child is not secure in a seat. There are far too many Instagram reels and other short-form videos where children are shown in dangerous situations while in a car. One reel I once saw was of a young mother driving a car with one hand while handling a baby with another. Looked very cool, but honestly, something she ought to be fined for at the very least. This is something that popular social media sites should act upon urgently.
Our parents did not know better. My father drove my younger brother back home from hospital in a Standard Herald (a Triumph Herald in the UK), a vehicle that would fail every safety test today. I don’t recall ever being strapped in while going on drives in the late 1980s and early 1990s, although I have always worn my seatbelt since I started driving in 1996.
When we demand better from Indian carmakers at New car Assessment Program (NCAP) crash tests, even for children, many people blithely ignore the fact that the child protection part is conducted and only applicable if the child is secure and in a child seat. In fact, the child seat that is used in NCAP seats has to meet ECE44 regulations. This is a European standard that has become the global default for the time being. If you have seen any of the dramatic crash-test videos, you can clearly observe how a child restraint system keeps infants, toddlers and young children safer in the case of an accident.
Yes, carmakers should make safer cars. But we as car users should play our part as well, especially as parents. We all want the best for our children, so why don’t we put them in child seats. And you know what? Maybe they will grow to like it.
@kushanmitra is an automotive journalist based in New Delhi. Views are personal.