A new Swiss law taking effect on April 1 requiring children aged up to 13 or under 150cm to ride in car seats is one of the strictest of its kind in Europe.
The regulations seek to bring the country in line with European Union standards, but some say the law has gone too far.
Until now children up to seven years old required safety seats when riding in private vehicles. The EU as a whole has no age requirement, but a minimum-height limit has been in place for years: Children can only ride in cars without special seats once they are at least 135cm tall.
Some parents, taxi drivers and sports groups worry that the new law penalises them unfairly since most cars simply don’t have room for three or more children to ride in car seats. The Swiss Football Association has asked the government to rescind the law.
The Touring Club of Switzerland (TCS), however, supports the more stringent regulations, noting that seat belts alone are not enough to protect bigger children.
“Crash tests show clearly that with ordinary safety belts the risk of children getting seriously hurt in an accident is too big,” Stephan Müller, a TCS spokesman told swissinfo.ch. “Parents should do everything they can to secure their children properly.”
Booster seat, again
Maria Emmenegger of Bern agrees. But the mother of two is one of presumably many mothers in Switzerland now faced with placing children back in car seats after years of having them legally buckle up like adults.
Her son Dario is ten years old and 147cm tall, three centimetres shy of the height requirement.
“It’s a concrete problem with Dario now,” she told swissinfo.ch. “He goes to confirmation classes once a week with other kids and the person who drives them says she won’t be able to take all of them in booster seats.”
Emmenegger believes authorities should do more to make sure babies and toddlers are properly secured, saying she’s seen them ride with no car seat at all. TCS says as many as 40 per cent of children in Switzerland are not properly fastened in automobiles already.
“It’s very important that children be properly secured, but somehow I don’t understand why the rules have suddenly gone up so much, from seven to 12,” she said. “You can adjust the seatbelt to Dario’s height and that works fine.”
About 500 children are injured on Swiss roads each year, TCS said, a figure confirmed by the Swiss Office for Accident Prevention. On average 11 children aged 0-17 are killed.
The new law comes in the fallout of a highly publicised case in 2009, when a three-year-old boy riding in a car unbuckled his car seat, opened the door and fell onto the road. He died.
The stricter regulations would have done little to save his life, but the government quickly approved a Federal Roads Office proposal to beef up rules governing car seats.
“We are finding it’s just much too much, and frankly, stupid,” said Pascal Prince, president of Mobilitant.org, a group that champions drivers rights. As the father of a young girl he said he understands the concerns but believes the government has overstepped its bounds.
Mobilitant has collected more than 20,000 signatures asking lawmakers to modify the law. The regulations would be sufficient with no age limit and a 135cm-height minimum, he said.
Some of the most vocal opposition to the law has come from the French-speaking regions of the country, with politicians in cantons Valais and Vaud leading the fight. Mobilitant is based in the French-speaking canton of Jura.
Swiss media reports have also suggested attitudes toward the new law differ along linguistic lines. “Car seats, the rage of Swiss-French” read a headline in the Geneva-based Le Temps newspaper.
On the other hand, the Tagblatt newspaper in the German-speaking city of St Gallen declared: “Properly buckle kids in cars”. A TCS spokesman said he too has noticed a cultural divide.
“Difficult to say,” political analyst Georg Lutz told Le Temps. “Swiss French generally don’t like things that impede their mobility.”
In 1980, French-speaking cantons voted overwhelming against making seatbelts mandatory – up to 87 per cent were against it in canton Valais. On the other hand, Basel City (71 per cent) and Zurich (75 per cent) voted overwhelmingly for the measure. It passed overall with 51.6 per cent of the vote.
As for Emmenegger, a German speaker, she said she’s not sure what she’ll do. Either way shoehorning her son back into a car seat will not come easily.
“Dario’s simply too big now,” she said. “It’s uncomfortable for him. Doing a long trip like that just wouldn’t work.”
Tim Neville, swissinfo.ch
Proportionally, children have bigger, heavier heads than adults and hip bones – which often bear the brunt of a seatbelt’s restraining force during a crash – are not fully developed until about 12 years old. That makes them more susceptible to neck and back injuries.
The lap belt can slip up and off a child’s hips in a wreck, transferring potentially devastating forces across soft abdominal tissues and organs. Child seats help prevent this.
The new law says children shorter than 150cm (4’11”) need at a booster seat until they turn 13. Approved versions include those labeled ECE 44.03 or .04
Road fatalities across the European Union for all age groups have been declining since 2001 by more than a third over the decade. Only two countries saw an increase in car-crash deaths between 2001-2009: Malta (up 31%) and Romania (up 14%).
Annual average number of deaths among children 17 years old and younger between 2000-2008:
Switzerland: (7.6 million): 11
Britain (61.4 million): 169
Germany (82.1 million): 212
France (62 million): 210
Italy (59.9 million): 166
Ireland (4.5 million): 16
Spain (45.6 million): 146
Austria (8.3 million): 30
Source: the EU Road Safety Commission, Swiss Council for Accident Prevention