Driving away with “total peace of mind” should be a given when it comes to installing a child’s car seat – and that is what Halfords’ seat-fitting service promises on its website. But, as one family discovered, it is essential to check before you even think of turning the ignition key.
Sam and Kathryn Lindo were dismayed to discovered they had been driving baby daughter Harriett around for three weeks before realising she was in danger.
They had used the Halfords service – which claims to have “over 2,000 trained child car seat specialists in stores nationwide to help you choose the right seat for your child and the perfect fit for your car” – at a branch in Cornwall.
As Sam explains, the first seat fitted was a display model: “There was just one young chap who was trained, working that day. He tried to install it on his own, but had problems. I managed to solve one, which was how to have the seat rotate the other way. The seat belt was clicked into place, and he was satisfied it was fitted.
“We then asked for a non-display model, so he removed the seat and we had to wait 20 minutes while the staff tried to find one. Our baby grew tired of waiting, so we made an offer for the display one. He fitted it back in to the car and we paid and left.
“It was three weeks later that my wife noticed there were other hooks around the base that weren’t being used. I finally read the instructions and realised the lap part of the belt was meant to go round the seat. Halfords should have made it clear that parents should read the instructions. We were stupid enough to place our daughter’s life in the hands of some young chap.”
The Lindos’ experience is far from unusual. Data collected by local authorities suggests that two thirds of all children travelling in cars are being put at risk of injury by poorly fitted car seats.
And consumer champion Which? has found that buying from a retailer that offers to fit it is no guarantee it will be installed correctly. It mystery-shopped 43 stores around the country, including Mothercare and Babies R Us, and seven independent retailers, and found mistakes in almost half of cases.
Data supplied to The Observer by road safety officers around the country suggests that 66% of child car seats are incorrectly fitted. The data, collected at seat-checking sessions in supermarket car parks during the summer, reveals a litany of problems from incorrectly routed seat belts to harnesses that are too high, or too loose.
■ In Portsmouth of 141 seats checked only 41 (29.7%) passed their safety check; 34 (24%) failed on a major point: six were the incorrect stage of seat for the child; five were far too old to be in use; and seven were condemned by road safety officers.
■ In the Wirral 37 of 47 seats (79%) were not fitted properly. Of these, road safety officers were able to adjust 33, but four were not suitable for the child.
■ In Oxfordshire road safety officers found problems in 77% of cases, with badly routed seatbelts accounting for 29% of mistakes. Checks revealed that 87% of rear-facing seats – those aimed at birth to around a year – were incorrectly fitted, while 75% of forward-facing seats needed adjusting.
And this could just be the tip of the iceberg as the parents taking part had volunteered to have their child seats checked.