Official Report: Minutes of Evidence
Committee for the Environment, meeting on Thursday, 26 February 2015
Members present for all or part of the proceedings:Ms A Lo (Chairperson)
Mrs Pam Cameron (Deputy Chairperson)
Mr C Eastwood
Mr I McCrea
Mr A Maginness
Mr I Milne
Mrs S Overend
Mr Peter Weir
Witnesses:Ms Pauline Moore, Department of the Environment
Mr Donald Starritt, Department of the Environment
Motor Vehicles (Wearing of Seat Belts) (Amendment) Regulations (Northern Ireland) 2015: Department of the Environment
The Chairperson (Ms Lo): I welcome Donald Starritt and Pauline Moore from the road user behaviour policy and road safety strategy branch in the Department of the Environment. It is nice to see you both again. I invite you to brief the Committee.
Mr Donald Starritt (Department of the Environment): Thank you for the opportunity to brief the Committee today. I will not say a lot about the regulations at this stage, although I am happy to answer any questions. I will instead summarise the material that we have sent to the Committee already. Members will know that it relates to a new European regulation — regulation 129. The idea is to introduce new safety standards for child restraint systems in cars.
The system is coming in on a phased basis, and what we are talking about now is the first phase, which is child restraints for younger children, by which we mean up to four and a half years of age. What we need to do to implement the regulation in Northern Ireland is change our domestic law. To do that, we need two sets of regulations. One set has already been with the Committee. It was subject to the negative resolution procedure, and the Committee was content with it.
Mr Starritt: That is right. This set of regulations is subject to the affirmative resolution procedure and therefore needs a debate. That is why we are here today. The debate is provisionally scheduled for 10 March, I think.
I will say a bit about what regulation 129 sets out to do. Its basic aim is better protection for children when they are being moved in cars. One of the main things that it will do is provide for car seats to be anchored into what are called ISOFIX points in the car's structure. It is a matter of locating those points and pushing and clicking the seat into place. I am sure that, like me in previous years, a lot of Committee members have struggled with, first, getting the car seat in in the first place and, secondly, being content that it is secure. Regulation 129 will hopefully reduce a lot of that uncertainty and make things easier.
The new seats will also provide better side-impact protection in the event of a collision. When it is fully in place, regulation 129 will also require young children up to the age of 15 months to be rearward-facing when they are being moved in cars. Those are some of the safety precautions, which are based on research across Europe.
When the regulations come into effect, the old-style car seats will not suddenly become illegal. It is a phasing arrangement. Although regulation 129 will come into effect over a four-year period, the two safety standards will coexist. Over time, the old-style car seats will disappear, and all car seats being manufactured will be compliant with regulation 129, but for now there are two sets of standards. That is partly recognising the fact that not every car at the moment will have ISOFIX points, so parents will not have to rush out to buy a new car to comply with the law. That is not a requirement.
The other thing to say concerns how we will publicise this. There is already very good information available online about the new car seats, because they are on the market at the moment. The seats are already available in shops and are compliant with the existing safety standards, so parents are already buying them. As I said, there is good information online, from the manufacturers and from the retailers themselves. When we bring in the legislation, which is to ensure that regulation 129 is provided for in law, we will issue a press release that will give it a little bit of publicity. We will put information on to NI Direct, and obviously we as officials will be available to deal with any queries that we receive, but I imagine that a lot of the queries will be handled by retailers themselves.
The operational date for the legislation is the 20 April 2015.
Mr Starritt: Very soon, yes. That is all that I have to say at the outset, but I am happy to answer any questions.
Ms Lo: Are we talking about new child-restraint car seats or about seat belts in the car?
Mr Starritt: No, it is the actual car seat that you would buy for a young child, so it is the seat itself. The system will allow the seat to be secured in the car using points that are already mounted in the car.
Ms Lo: We are talking about two things. Car manufacturers will have to do the new anchor point, and then the car seats are going to be slightly different from what people are used to.
Mr Starritt: That is right. New cars being manufactured now will have to provide the new ISOFIX points, but it will take a bit of time for the entire car fleet in Northern Ireland, or any other country, to have ISOFIX points. That is one reason that the new regulations are being phased in. We are dealing with the first phase at the moment, and it concerns the car seat that you would buy in the shop for a young child.
Ms Lo: We are really talking about two things, then. Under the new seat belt regulations, if parents are going to buy a new car, they cannot transfer their old car seat to the new car.
Mr Starritt: That goes back to my point about the two standards coexisting for a while. It is not a matter of us saying that we are bringing in the new standard, so the old one is gone. For the next four years, both standards will be in place. If parents have a child car seat now and are securing it using the belt in the car, which, I think, is the point that you are getting at, they can continue to do that.
Mr Starritt: The legislation will come into effect in April 2015, but parents will already be buying the new ISOFIX car seats and using them now. They have been in the shops for a long time.
Mr Starritt: We anticipate 2018 at the earliest.
Mrs Cameron: You anticipate that, by 2018, all new cars will have the fixed points.
Mr Starritt: We think that most cars will by that stage.
Mr Starritt: No. I mentioned at the start that the new arrangements are being brought in on a phased basis. It may be useful to talk a wee bit about the phases. We are dealing with phase 1 at the moment, which concerns young children up to four and a half. Phase 2 will look at booster seats and cushions for older children in the back of cars. Again, it will be about making those compliant with the new safety standards. We do not yet have a lot of detail about phase 3, simply because it is still being discussed by the European Commission. We understand that phase 3 may look at a scenario in which seats that still have to be secured using the seat belt can benefit from the new safety standards coming in for side-impact protection and the rearward-facing requirement for young children. We do not entirely know at this stage what phase 3 will involve.
Mr Starritt: Yes. One of our concerns is whether, if you do not have an ISOFIX-compliant car in 2018, that means that you have to rush out and buy one. We cannot definitively answer that at the moment.
Mr Starritt: However, I anticipate that, by that stage, most cars will have ISOFIX points. Some cars have had them from the 1990s. Some manufacturers were ahead of the game in installing them in their cars. The vast majority of the fleet will have those points.
Mr Starritt: They are in behind the car seat —
Mrs Cameron: OK. Therefore, we might already have them and not know.
Mrs Cameron: Interesting. It does not seem reasonable, if the points have not been about for some time, for you to expect everybody to have a car no older than three years by 2018.
Mr Starritt: It is one of the questions that we have about phase 3; we have not been able to get a satisfactory answer. We discussed the other week what phase 3 will involve. There are bound to be people with a car that has not had ISOFIX points fitted by the manufacturers, and they possibly cannot have their car retrofitted. We are not sure yet whether phase 3 will ensure that those cars can still be used with child car seats. I anticipate that it will, but I hesitate to be too definitive about that.
Mrs Cameron: Is the Department investigating how many of our cars have fixed points and for how long manufacturers have been producing them with fixed points, in order to get a better indication?
Mr Starritt: It varies. I do not want to focus on a particular make, but I know that Volkswagen, from the late 1990s, has been installing ISOFIX points as standard.
Mr Eastwood: Can we ask questions about each individual make of car?
Mr Starritt: I cannot answer them.
Mrs Cameron: Are the seats in production? Can you already get the seats that fit into the points?
Ms Pauline Moore (Department of the Environment): A lot of the car seats that are currently on sale have the ISOFIX fittings already.
Ms Moore: Yes. Car-seat retailers and manufacturers have not waited for the legislation to come into place but have gone ahead and introduced, designed and manufactured car seats with all the add-ons. However, car seats are still certified at regulation 44 standard until we introduce the legislation for regulation 129.
As for the cars, I have done a lot of research and visited a lot of car manufacturing websites. Many of the models that we have and have been driving on Northern Ireland's roads since 2002, 2004 and 2006 had introduced ISOFIX anchorage points in the back seats. Therefore, many of our cars will have them. I have also discovered websites that provide links for parents. If you put in the make, model and year of the car, you can find out whether you have anchorage points in the car or whether they can be fitted retrospectively. The car manufacturer is also a point of contact for parents if they want that reassurance that they have ISOFIX anchorage points. However, as I said, much of the car fleet on Northern Ireland's roads today already has them.
Mrs Cameron: That is useful to know. Can we get some more information on the details of the websites so that we can look them up?
Mrs Cameron: That said, I have to say that I will not have to look it up, because my baby is coming 19. She needs a car, never mind a car seat.
Ms Moore: But you will be 19 in a few years' time, so —
Mrs Cameron: As an overall point, it is good that we are moving towards this type of seat, because my experience of car seats is that they are pretty bad. They are all over the place. They are not terribly secure under the seat belt, to be fair. It depends on how good your car is and how good your seat belts are.
Mrs Cameron: Overall, we welcome this, but I think that a wee bit more information would be good for the consumer. I suppose, if you are doing any kind of public awareness campaign, that you could start now. Although, perhaps parents know about ISOFIX points. They may be better educated about them than the rest of us.
Ms Moore: You are probably right. I did some mystery shopping. I went into a few car-seat retailers' shops to find out the advice that they give parents. I have to say that some of them were excellent and quoted the legislation to me, and, historically, they were able to give me details that I was unaware of. Therefore, our car-seat retailers are very well informed. They have information leaflets for parents, and, as I said, there is a lot of information online. We intend to pull that together in a question-and-answer sheet for parents and to direct them to the websites.
Mr Eastwood: I bought one of these car seats last week. My life is changing dramatically already.
However, nobody told me any of that stuff, so there is mystery shopping for you.
Are all car seats that are now being sold at that standard? Is it just some of them or a certain percentage? Do we know?
Mr Starritt: We do not have figures. We anticipate that, increasingly, they will be compliant with the new European regulation, because manufacturers can see the direction of travel. However, there are still a significant number of seats that are not compliant. Like Pauline, I did some mystery shopping. My experience, whether or not it is typical, is that the ISOFIX seats are pushed a wee bit more at the moment, but both types of seats are still available.
Mr Eastwood: I was just carrying the seat. I do not think that we were told about ISOFIX or anything like that. However, that is beside the point. Can the newer models of seat be secured by seat belts in older cars?
Ms Moore: The i-Size, which is the newer model of car seat, has three ISOFIX points: two that go into the seat and one that is for a top tether. Did you buy that one?
Ms Moore: There is a top-tether connection that is anchored to the back seat as well. Not all cars have the three-point ISOFIX system, but the third ISOFIX point can be retrospectively fitted to cars.
Mr Eastwood: I wish that I had known last week, so it is actually very bad timing.
My other question concerns public awareness. We are very aware of the financial constraints, especially around advertising and road safety. Have you any idea or notion of budget? Other than sticking information on the NI Direct website — I do not know how many people look at it — are there any plans to advertise elsewhere and go to where people are? Have you any budget for this?
Mr Starritt: It is right to say that we do not have a big budget. I am conscious of your experience, but we do not anticipate that, in time, communication will be that big a problem, because I think that manufacturers will want to get the message across. They will stop making one type of seat so will be pushing another. The retailers will become more conversant with it. As we said, Pauline and I did mystery shopping, and we probably had different experiences. One retailer was excellent and knew absolutely everything that it needed to know, but others were less knowledgeable. Manufacturers and retailers seem to be getting their staff on to training courses gradually. I think that it is fair to say that the main source of advice on car seats is not going to be the Department but where people go to buy them. It will come from the shops.
Mr Eastwood: I suppose that manufacturers can sell only the new type if the regulations come in. Is that right? Sorry, they can still sell the others.
Mr Starritt: They can still sell them for now, yes.
Mrs Overend: Thank you for your presentation. Most of my questions have been answered. I could sell you an old seat, Colum.
Mrs Overend: The ISOFIX seats used to be more expensive than the others. I recall having had ISOFIX points in my cars for years and years. They are hidden away. You do not see them if you are not using them. The seats for the ISOFIX points were more expensive. They were not deemed to be any better, but perhaps they are. Is that the case?
Mr Starritt: First, may I say that our advice is not to buy a second-hand car seat?
Mr Starritt: It is probably fair to say that the ISOFIX seats are relatively more expensive, although there is obviously a range of prices. Currently, the cost ranges from a very cheap seat to a very expensive seat. The cheapest ISOFIX seat will be more expensive than the cheapest non-ISOFIX seat is, and, likewise, the most expensive ISOFIX seat will be more expensive than the most expensive non-ISOFIX seat. The range will move. However, we anticipate that, over time, as such seats become the norm and manufacturers produce them alone, the costs will fall, but they are slightly more expensive at the moment.
Mrs Overend: That is not going to encourage people to use them. If regulations are changing, but you can still buy the old ones, people will do the same as I did; they will go for the cheaper option. You say that there will be a lead-in period, but I do not know whether it will lead people anywhere if it costs them more.
Ms Moore: From my research, I found that they range in cost. A regulation 44 seat, which is the standard at the minute, ranges from £50 to £200, while the new i-Size seat ranges from £80 to £325. You may not get the all-singing, all-dancing i-Size seat, but there is an overlap in the middle where you will get an i-Size seat at a mid-range price.
Mrs Overend: OK. Thanks. As the child gets older, it will move into a booster seat. They are going to have ISOFIX points as well. Booster seats tend to be more moveable and not to be fixed.
Ms Moore: That is in phase 2 of the regulations. Phase 2 will address booster seats and booster cushions.
Mr Starritt: It should be before that, but we do not have a date yet. I would have thought around 2016, but, again, it is down to how quickly the Commission moves on this. The plan was to have phase 3 in by 2018. I would have thought that to have phase 2 in 2016 would be a reasonable guess, but it is no more than a guess at the moment.
The Chairperson (Ms Lo): What worries me is that some people still sit in the back seat holding on to a baby rather than put the baby in a seat. It is scary when you think about it.
Mrs Cameron: Many times when you are driving and you look at the car next to you, the kids are bobbing about in the back and halfway out the window. They are not restrained at all. According to the law, adults must wear a seat belt if they have a seat belt. I presume that it is the same with child restraints, seats and boosters. Under the law, must children be in a car seat or on a booster just as an adult must wear a seat belt if it is there?
Ms Moore: That is right, yes, unless travelling in a taxi. Taxi drivers are not required to provide booster seats or booster cushions. However, children of three years and above still have to be restrained using the adult seat belt. The law states that children must be restrained in proper child restraints.
Ms Moore: A fine and penalty points will be applied if you fail to do that, because it is the driver's responsibility.