LIFE SAVERS: Peggie Mars from wheel well carries a car seat inside her shop at Brightwater Commons in Randburg. Peggie collects used car seats from parents and gives them away for a donation to parents who cannot afford to buy car seats. Picture: Paballo Thekiso
Children bouncing on the back seat; toddlers crawling around unrestrained, and mothers holding their babies in the front seat.

Child seat usage might be mandatory for children under the age of three, but parents apparently can’t be bothered - or afford - to strap them in.

Child seat usage in South Africa has been mandatory for children under the age of three since 2015, but observance is low and enforcement sorely lacking. It might sound harsh, but if you love your children and have a car, you’ll strap them in. And if you can’t afford a child seat, there are organisations willing to help.

Wheel Well, an NGO set up in 2012 to advocate for road safety for children, on Friday raised concern about child seats made in China but rebranded in South Africa, which have been recalled in Europe because they pose a serious risk to children and other occupants.

Peggie Mars, the founder of Wheel Well, agrees: “We don’t have reliable and up-to-date statistics on how many children are affected in crashes in South Africa. The Road Traffic Management Corporation gives stats on crash scenes, not the deaths in hospitals as a result, but it’s believed to be about 30% underreported.”

Last year, the Automobile Association said it had informally observed less than 7% of drivers were putting children into car seats. It’s called for stricter enforcement of the law and more compliance among drivers.

“When the law came into effect in July last year, we welcomed the change to the legislation and called on authorities to ensure a wide education and enforcement campaign was launched to ensure infants got the protection the law provided. We are dismayed that too many people are failing to buckle up and protect children in the car,” the AA said at the time.

In many instances, the AA said children were sitting in the front passenger seat without seatbelts, standing in moving vehicles, or not in an age-, weight- and height-appropriate car seat.

Wheel Well runs public education campaigns and reconditions used and donated child seats, which are then supplied to people who can’t afford them.

It’s not only an issue of access to car seats and using them, Mars says, because people are simply not using the seats correctly.

“They’re either not appropriate, or not installed correctly so can’t give full benefits in a crash. The biggest problem is with the installation; the seats are not appropriate for weight, height and age, or they offer no side protection.”

Children need to be in the correct seats before they are upgraded, because often they are upgraded too quickly from infant to toddler, and toddler to booster.

“The instruction leaflets for the car seats is hugely problematic, especially the ones from China. They don’t explain proper installation. The issue is also with sales staff - there’s usually a high turnover of staff, and they aren’t properly trained to give that advice.”

Mars says the South African Bureau of Standards does not test car seats any longer, but another agency of the dti relies on the higher authority of European safety authorities.

“The National Regulator for Compulsory Specifications (the NRCS, which operates independently of the SABS) issues a certificate based on the European standard ECE certificate, essentially rubber-stamping it. Yet many car seats on our market don’t seem to be ECE-compliant.”

Her advice is if it’s not a known brand, don’t buy it.

To date, Wheel Well has received over 10000 child seats, but at least 3000 of them had to be scrapped because they were too old and too dangerous.

I contacted the NRCS for comment, but had received no feedback by deadline.

Mars also sent them queries in August, but has had no response either.

She says of great concern is the fact that three “universal car seats” - the Fine Living (recalled by the ECE), and two toddler seats, which have been rebranded by Chelino, were recalled in May this year, but not in South Africa by the NRCS.

The Fine Living is made by Ganen and Lucky Baby in China.

An ECE member has now also raised concerns about a fourth car seat, which is available here as the Chelino Phantom, after an ADAC (Allgemeiner Deutscher Automobil-Club) crash test video from Germany was publicised in which the LB513 was found to crumble on impact, posing a serious risk to children. But the LB513 won’t be recalled until an official complaint is lodged with the Economic Commission for Europe (ECE).

Imports of the LB513 have stopped, but the HB616, which looks the same, is on the SA market.

The supplier needs to recall the seats, which have the same ECE numbers, from the end-user, she says.

“It’s astounding. I contacted the NRCS to do something about it. The seats are going for under R1000, but you’re basically buying a death certificate.”

Another concern is that the NRCS last updated its homologation database for certifying child restraints on January 23, 2014.

The Fine Living was sold by Takealot and other online retailers. Takealot has removed it from the site as a precaution, telling me: “We were made aware of the recall of the Ganen Fine Living child restraint product by the European Commission in late September. After being made aware of the recall by the EC, we immediately removed the said product from the website and contacted our supplier and the NRCS.

“We inquired with the NRCS as to whether a recall was necessary. However their response was that they would investigate the matter and a recall would be issued by them should it be deemed necessary. On October 25 this year, the NRCS confirmed with our supplier that the product in question was compliant and suitable for sale.

“The written confirmation was given by the NRCS, which is set out below: ‘After careful consideration and review of your approval documents as per file number (NRCS VC8033-TF291) I would like to confirm that NRCS has found the child restraint compliant, and therefore it can be offered for sale.’

“Please note that the file number referred to in the written confirmation corresponds with the certificate issued by the NRCS in respect of the product in question (certificate attached).

“The product has still not yet been reactivated on our site as we only just received the final written communication from our suppliers on 29 November 2017.”

I asked Chelino Baby whether they had contacted consumers and retailers to alert them to the ECE certificates’ withdrawal for the seats, but their lawyer, Nadia Shaik, told me they did not have enough time to respond given the sensitivity and implications of the inquiry. A further deadline was also missed.

Blob: To donate a car seat, visit Wheel Well at Brightwater Commons. Their website also lists drop off points.

* Georgina Crouth is a consumer with serious bite. Write to her at [email protected]

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