Volvo takes front foot on child safety

Volvo Cars flips the trend of child-safety seats. WhichCar's Sally Dominguez buckles down into the all-important world of safety.

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Remember 'shotgunning' for a ride in the rear-facing dickie seats that folded down in old Mercedes-Benz and Volvo station wagons? Who wants to face forward staring at the back of mum’s seat when you could gesture out the action-packed rear window to tail-gating drivers?

The first child seat was prototyped in 1964 by a doctor emulating the way astronauts travelled rearwards, and the first production child seat was created when Volvo enabled the front passenger seat to spin around in the 1967 Amazon.

Seeing the world go by backwards is the safest way for babies and kids to travel. And while most of us team travelling backwards with motion-sickness, recent research by Volvo's Car Safety Centre confirms that children have no preference with the direction they face when travelling.

The Centre also reports that rear-facing seats are also safer because a child's head is proportionally larger and their neck is weaker than adults. According to the research, the head of a newborn baby makes up half its total weight – an adult’s head weighs only about six per cent of the total weight. Rearward-facing child restraints support the neck and help spread the force of the impact over a larger area in frontal incidents, which are the most frequent and usually the most severe impact situation. In response to this research, Volvo recently produced the XC90 Excellence which features the Lounge Console Concept.

Tisha Johnson, Chief Designer Interiors at Volvo Cars Concept and Monitoring Centre, said, “We have been investigating the nature of progressive luxury for some time, and we see a direct connection between luxury and emotional well-being.”

Volvo claims the XC90 is one of the safest cars in the world

The Excellence Child Seating Concept, part of the Lounge Console Concept, is a re-think of how a small child travels with its caregiver, replacing the front passenger seat with a swiveling forward-mounted rear-facing child seat that faces the parent sitting in the back seat. And, the swiveling baby seat will accommodate children until they are around four years old (once their neck muscles are strong enough).

The leather-wrapped curving and pivoting design is similar to that used in the beautiful 2008 Nissan Forum concept and Mercedes-Benz’s more recent F015 self-driving car, but the difference is in the location of the baby seat.

The front passenger seat is currently a no-go zone for babies and children because of the damage dash-mounted airbags can do to a child. Additionally, Australian research suggests that young children using adult seatbelts are more than three times more likely to be badly injured, particular around the head, than those in correctly fitted child restraints.

Assuming your car has conventional front seats, the rear seats are where you will be fitting an Australian Standards AS/NZS 1754-approved baby seat, either facing rearwards or forwards depending on the size of the child. Kidsafe and Neuroscience Research Australia (NeuRA) recommend that the child stay facing backwards until their legs are too long.

Traditional baby capsules only hold a child until their 70cm long, however a new category of rear-facing seats called Type A4 are tested and approved to hold kids as old as three years. After that, it’s a front-facing seat with an in-built five or six-point harness until the kids turns four. The Australian Standard uses height as a guide for when to transition from a baby seat, so look to see whether your child’s shoulders sit within the markers on the seat. Once they are above the top mark it’s time to move on.

Word of warning to vintage car enthusiasts and tradies: A kid seat must be installed using manufacturer-installed anchor points, and some older cars and commercial vehicles don’t have them. There is no other way to anchor your child’s seat so that it protects your child in a crash. The seat, headrests or luggage ties might look tempting, but they won’t work. So don’t do it. And forget about using old-school off-roader side-facing jump seats – our necks don’t like to crick sideways.

There’s another less obvious aspect and that’s what chemicals the child-seat materials contain. HealthyStuff is a non-profit American organisation that tests various products for toxic chemicals that can bio-accumulate in our bodies and affect health.

Stringent rules regarding the fireproofing of baby seats means that most of them (over 70 per cent of the American seats tested) contain hazardous halogenated flame-retardants. Top rated companies including Britax (sold in Australia as Safe N Sound and Steelcraft) and Clek (not yet available here) are proactively reducing hazardous chemicals in their products. The poorest performing company was Graco. The full 2014 report can be found here.

What about kids who are too tall for a toddler seat, but still more fragile than an adult? How about Mercedes-Benz’s rear-facing fold-down jump seat? The Volvo V70 wagon had the dickie seat many Australians grew up with, though Mercedes-Benz is now the only maker with that kid-coveted rear-facing third row seat featured as standard in their E400 Estate wagon.

If Tesla CEO Elon Musk had his way, though, the Tesla S sedan would offer what Musk calls the “safest seat in the car” to kids in Australia. Two contoured rear-facing seats with five point harnesses fit beneath the vast rear window of the Tesla, accommodating children aged from three until they either don’t fit or reach 33kg. Curiously, however, the Tesla jump seat option is unavailable in Australia.

Conventional removable rear-facing seats that are pushing the safety game forward but are currently unavailable in Australia include the Clek Fllo, a versatile self-declared “friggin’ awesome” seat that looks the biz, sports innovative crash protection technology and is free of harmful flame retardants, and Carkoon, a transforming seat featuring Kevlar reinforcement and a built-in fireproof airbag that deploys across the open face of the seat to entirely cocoon the baby from danger.

Our Australian Standards for child-safe car seats are some of the toughest in the world, and as research suggests that kids should stay facing rearward and boosted as long as possible, new products will continue to address that niche. The latest are the ISOFIX latches, finally legal in Australia and highly effective at reducing the risk of incorrect car seat installs.

As we inch closer to the reality of self-driving cars expect to see more unusual seat configurations. Volvo’s Excellence Lounge Console is the harbinger of what is to come.


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