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Driving with kids in the car
Having a child or baby in the car can be one of the biggest distractions when driving. Real life just isn’t like those car adverts with spotless children smiling and behaving beautifully. Sometimes fit can feel like there is a war raging on the back seat.
For a baby or small child, it’s all about them of course. They’re not bothered that you are driving across a busy roundabout and trying to concentrate. They don’t care if you are tired (because they kept you up the night before) and you are having to navigate through an unfamiliar town. And they’re just not fussed whether they get sticky chocolate-covered fingers all over the light velour upholstery. If they are hungry, hot, cold, need the toilet, can’t reach their toy, don’t wish to visit Grandma or any other reason, they’re going to be difficult passengers at best and certainly more likely distract you from your job of driving safely.
We don’t have any magic solutions because each child is different but we can suggest some common sense approaches to maximise the safety of you and your young passengers.
It’s the law!
Whether they like it or not, children under 12 years old or below 135cm in height must use a suitable child seat. The type of seat will be based on either the child’s height or weight.
Here are the main rules which must be obeyed when transporting children.
- Height-based seats (also known as i-Size seats) must be rear-facing when children are less than 15 months old.
- Weight-based seats are made for children of specific weights grouped as follows:
- 0 (0-10kg) flat or rear-facing baby carrier or rear-facing baby seat
- 0+ (0-13kg) rear-facing baby carrier or rear-facing baby seat
- 1 (9-18kg) rear- or front-facing baby seat
- 2 (15-25kg) rear- or front-facing child seat or booster cushion
- 3 (22-36kg) rear- or front-facing child seat or booster cushion
- The airbag must be switched-off if the child is in a rear-facing front seat.
- Children must not be transported on side-facing seats.
It is important to adjust seats properly and follow the fixing instructions to ensure the seat is correctly fitted. Most new cars have the universal ISOFIX slots which hold the seat in place securely. A top tether strap or support leg is also required to form the third anchorage point for additional bracing in the event of a collision.
For the latest rules, visit the Government site: https://www.gov.uk/child-car-seats-the-rules
Keep children calm
Yes, we know this isn’t always possible! But there are a few things you can do to improve matters.
Get them used to travelling. If you start children young, travelling in the car should become routine. This doesn’t mean it will be without its challenges but they can learn to understand the pattern and what’s expected of them. This pattern includes using the toilet before leaving the house.
Talk to them about what is expected in terms of safety (doors, windows, throwing, shouting, unbuckling themselves, getting out of their seat).
Reward good behaviour to reinforce it.
Keep them occupied. This is the big one. A few favourite toys, a film on a tablet or a toy tidy bag which hangs off the back of the seat in front can all make the difference. With smaller children, make sure the toys are soft (or they could hurt in an accident or if used as a missile) and consider attaching them to the car seat so they won’t be lost onto the floor. Choose their favourite music or a talking book. When children are a little older you can try the many car games parents have devised over the years. It doesn’t just have to be ‘I spy’ - check out the internet for alternatives. Some children are happy reading in cars so a new book is a good treat for a longer run and there are some great spotters guides specifically for car journeys.
Involve them. This is easier when they are a little older but let them decide which talking book is played or which motorway services to stop at. On shorter drives give them a choice of which route you take, if this is an option.
Keep the car at a sensible temperature. Nobody likes to be too hot or cold so use the air conditioning on hot days and provide a fleecy blanket to keep them toasty in winter or to snuggle under if driving late in the evening.
If your child is prone to car sickness this isn’t fun for anyone. There are different medications available and even travel bands which can help. You aren’t alone and your pharmacist will be able to advise.
Make regular stops. This can relieve the tedium of longer journeys for both the adults and children.
Keep the adults calm
If you are calm and relaxed, it will both improve the atmosphere in the car - helping the kids stay a little gentler - and will assist when it comes to concentrating on the important task of driving.
First and foremost, ensure the seat is fixed properly and your child is strapped into it. You will know that they are perfectly safe (even if they are shouting or screaming) and you can find the next safe stopping place to investigate what’s up rather than try and deal with an issue on the move.
If you are worried about your car being messed-up, buy a large seat cover which fits under the child seat. Choose dry snacks for the children such as bread sticks (which will leave just crumbs at worst) and use proper non-spill drinks bottles.
If you only have one child, put them behind the passenger seat. This is easier to get them in and out at the kerb-side but also means when their legs are long enough to kick the back of the seat in front, it isn’t yours.
If you can, have an adult sit in the back and keep them entertained (and if insured, swap drivers regularly to keep each person fresh).
Try and pick a time to travel when your baby sleeps. This might be after a feed or late at night. Even some older children can still manage a post lunch nap so make the most of this, even if it is for just part of a journey.
Make regular stops. This can be frustrating when you need to cover a large distance but it will allow you and the children to have a break and a short change of scene.
Maintaining maximum visibility is critical for road safety. Remember other road users aren’t always as easy to spot and many unfortunate accidents happen with pedestrians and cyclists because a driver didn’t see them.
Many things can affect a driver’s visibility from external factors such as weather to misted windows. We can’t change the weather but it is your responsibility as a driver to ensure that windows are de-misted, the windscreen is washed and wiped as needed, stickers and sat-nav units don’t obscure the view and that the driver’s seat is at the correct height to maximise the view out. Remember it is an offence to drive with an empty washer bottle and this is for good reason.
The flip side of this is ensuring you make yourself as visible as possible to other road users. This means using dipped headlights when dusk falls, fog lights when visibility drops below 100 metres and a general awareness of the conditions around you. Automatic lights are fitted to many models of car but be aware they don’t always come on early enough in heavy rain. And do think about the colour of the car you are driving. If it is a dark or grey colour, you should consider putting your lights on earlier.
Warning about day running lights.
All cars sold in the UK since February 2011 are fitted with day running lights (DRLs) which are on the front of the car and illuminated all the time. This makes great sense when conditions are bright and vehicles are harder to see. When DRLs are on, the instruments and displays are also back-lit. Unfortunately, this means that when disk falls, it is easy to forget you haven’t switched on your lights and your car will have no lights at all illuminated at the rear.
How to prepare for car journeys
Driving in the 21st Century is easy. We jump in our cars, tell the sat-nav where we wish to go and follow the instructions until we arrive. Well, almost… Yes, it is perfectly possible to do this but it also makes sense to do some additional preparation, especially on longer or unfamiliar journeys.
Cars generally deliver high levels of reliability but your chances of needing to call a breakdown service will be greatly reduced by performing even a few basic checks before you set off.
Start with the fluids. Most fluids will have low level sensors on new cars but should be checked anyway. At the very least, check engine oil, coolant and screen washer fluid. Note it is actually an offence to drive with an empty washer bottle.
Do a visual check of the tyres to ensure they have sufficient tread depth and that they have the correct pressures. There are usually two pressures quoted, depending on whether you are driving on your own or fully laden with passengers and luggage.
Do you have enough fuel? If there is bad weather or a hold-up on the motorway, you could be stuck in your car for some time so it is important not to run the tank too low.
Don’t set unreal expectations for your arrival time as this will cause stress if you arrive late. Use an on-line service or sat-nav to calculate the journey time. Plan to avoid the rush hour if you can and remember to check for busy events such as football matches or festivals where there may be traffic jams. Plan in additional time for comfort breaks and meal stops.
Sat-navs really are great, especially if driving on your own in unfamiliar territory. But they are just one tool to help you navigate and relying on them completely isn’t advised. What happens if it fails? And remember they often use mapping which will become out of date as road layouts change and new routes are built. Sometimes roads are closed completely due to an accident and a sat-nav has a tendency to route you back to where you left the main road rather than find a new way. Remember too that your smartphone may not have a data signal in more rural places so you may not be able to use it to check your location.
We suggest looking at an overview of the route before you drive it. Take in the main places you will pass and main motorway numbers. This way you can still head in the right direction based on road signs, even if you are diverted. We also recommend you keep a road atlas in the car. Even an old one which is slightly out of date will have towns, cities and the main routes which will help you find your way.
Part of your journey planning should take into account where you wish to take breaks and make stops for fuel or battery recharging.
Serious weather - especially extreme winter conditions - can have a significant impact on journey times or even whether routes are passable at all due to snow, floods or high winds. Check before you leave and listen to traffic reports while in the car.
Crashes or road maintenance can add hours to your journey time. It is worth checking your route before setting off so you can plan detours and adjust your start and arrival times accordingly. The Highways Agency, AA and RAC all provide useful information. Don’t forget to check radio travel reports while you are on the move, too.
Comfort and safety
It is tempting to try and get those miles covered with as few breaks as possible to reach your destination but it is important to have regular stops on long drives to avoid fatigue.
It’s not all about the driver; if you have passengers, they may wish to make stops to stretch their legs too. Do consider if anyone has health issues you need to take into account. This might include carrying specific medication. Even someone with a bad back may wish to have extra stops for a brief walk.
Think about entertainment, especially when you have children on board. Long drives can be kept interesting for adults too with good music, talking books and podcasts, all of which should be planned ahead of the drive rather than fiddling with a smartphone while behind the wheel.
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