Car Seats: Rear Facing Background Basics

By Hakan Svensson
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Image courtesy of De Su Mama

Children who sit rear facing in a car seat cut the risk for death or injury dramatically. But why is rear facing so much better and where did the idea come from?

There are three main reasons why rear facing is so much better. First is the outstanding protection of a child’s head, neck and spine in frontal collision - which accounts for roughly 80% of accidents. Second is superior protection in side collisions. A rear facing child is pushed further into the car seat where it’s well protected. Third is a social reason, rear facing car seats often work better because driver/passenger can more easily communicate with the child.

You will notice Sweden mentioned often regarding car seat safety, especially when discussing rear facing use. The Swedes started rear facing long before other countries and have led research in the area for the past 40+ years. Swedish car seats are also different, with virtually all seats allowing children to sit rear facing up to 25 kg. (55 lbs), one of the highest rear facing limits in the world. Rear facing past 12 months is yet unheard of for many parents in other nations, while many are just now learning of the huge safety benefits. And all the while, rear facing car seats are a Swedish invention, with children here having used them standardly since the 1960s.

It was a Swedish professor, the now legendary Bertil Aldman, who came up with the idea of rear facing car seats in the early 1960s. Professor Aldman took his inspiration from the seats the Gemini mission astronauts used for take-off and landing, specially moulded to distribute the forces over the whole back. He was watching a TV program with the astronauts in the Gemini space capsule and noticed they were laying on their back, in opposite direction of acceleration. No one back then imagined how revolutionary Aldman’s research would become. He is now well known internationally and is credited with saving thousands of children’s lives. Read more here about Aldman and his 'crazy idea' of how to keep children ultra-safe in cars.

Many ask about rear facing and the benefits -- is it really that much safer? Are the benefits real? Are lives actually saved? From 1992 through June 1997, only 9 children properly restrained rear-facing died in motor vehicle crashes in Sweden, and all of these involved catastrophic crashes with severe intrusion and few other survivors. Looking at statistics in Sweden, where the recommendation is for children to sit rear facing until age 4, it is obvious to see what a huge difference the simple concept of rear facing really make.

Professor Aldman is legendary for his research, but it is Thomas Turbell who is called the 'Father of rear facing' for his work at the highly regarded crash test facility VTI in Sweden.  There are over a million rear-facing seats in use in Sweden, and we do not know of any cases where a child in a rear-facing car seat has been seriously injured in a frontal collision. Swedish accident research has shown that rearward facing children’s car seats reduce serious injuries by 92%, while the forward-facing seats only reduce injury by 60%.

In the last few years, the rest of Europe (and rest of the world) has also become aware of this. A number of cases are known in which children have been totally paralyzed as a result of neck injuries while using forward-facing seats. The idea of rear facing is very simple: children, not only babies, have weak neck and bone muscles which are well protected while rear facing. Volvo explained this very well in one sentence: In the event of a front-end collision, the whole of the child’s back takes the strain of the impact, not its much more vulnerable neck.

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To learn more about rear facing, first take a look at the history behind it and how the Swedes have been been rear facing children for the past 40+ years with amazing results. Read more details about the safety benefits and why Extended Rear Facing (rear facing past 24 months) or ERF is superior compared to forward facing. Learn about safety of different positions in the vehicle and also if Isofix/LATCH really make a difference.

Related Reading:

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Common Car Seat Errors:

Do You Use Your Car Seat Correctly? 

Safety: Rear-Facing As Long As Possible:

Rear-Face Car Seat Facing Still Beneficial 

Rear Face As Long As Possible

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