Driving with kids in the car
We have all seen the adverts with spotless children smiling and behaving impeccably in the back of a car. And we know real life isn’t like this. Transporting a child or baby in a vehicle can be one of the worst distractions while driving.
For any child, it’s all about them of course. They’re don’t care that you are driving across a busy junction and trying to concentrate. They’re not bothered if you are tired (because they kept you awake all night). And they’re just not fussed whether they get sticky food-covered fingers all over the seats. If they are hungry, hot, cold, need the toilet, can’t reach their toy, don’t wish to visit grandparents 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.
Each child will be differently challenging, but we can suggest some common-sense approaches to maximise safety for you and your little ones.
Let's start with 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.
Height-based seats (also called i-Size seats) must be rear-facing and are for when children are under 15 months old. Weight-based seats are grouped by weight ranges and details can be found on the government website here.
Remember the airbag must be switched-off if the child is rear-facing in a front seat. It is also illegal to transport children in side-facing seats.
As important as selecting the appropriate seat is ensuring it is correctly fitted and properly adjusted. Most new cars have the universal ISOFIX slots which hold the seat in place securely. A top tether strap or support leg is also needed to form the third anchorage point for additional bracing in the event of a collision.
Keep children calm
Even without Mary Poppins, there are things you can do to help matters.
Get your children used to travelling. If you start them young, travelling by car should become routine. This doesn’t mean it will be without issue but they can learn to understand the pattern and what’s expected of them. This 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 children occupied. This is the big one. Some 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 on 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 themed spotters guides specifically for car journeys.
Remember to charge-up kids’ tech and ensure it is working ahead of the drive.
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 it’s an option.
Keep the car at a sensible temperature. Use the air conditioning on warmer days and provide a fleecy blanket to keep them toasty in winter or to snuggle beneath if driving late in the evening.
Aim to pick a travel time when your baby sleeps, perhaps 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.
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 so seek advice from your pharmacist.
Don't forget the adults
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.
Ensure the child seat is fixed properly and your child is strapped into it. You will know that they are perfectly safe (even when they are yelling) 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, non-sugary snacks for the children such as bread sticks (which will just leave crumbs) and use non-spill drinks bottles. Pack wipes and spare clothes anyway!
If you only have one child, put them behind the passenger seat. It is easier to get them in and out kerb-side and also means if their legs are long enough to kick the back of the seat in front, it isn’t the driver’s.
When possible, have an adult sit in the back and keep them entertained (and if insured, swap drivers regularly to keep each person fresh).
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.
About the Author
Andrew is a freelance motoring journalist with a background in IT and the vehicle leasing industry. With a lifetime’s passion for all things automotive, he can be found behind the wheel of everything from vans to supercars. In addition to reviewing the latest vehicles and technology, Andrew also runs a couple of classic British motors. He lives at the edge of the Peak District with his son and cat.
Andrew Wright @theMotorWriter