11/17/2014 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Traveling Without Car Seats, A Reality Check


We've all done it. Gone on exotic vacation with kids to a developing country carting infant formula, water sterilizers for kids, hand sanitizer -- everything to ensure our children's safety...except car seats. When you travel with kids, car seats seem like a fanciful and impractical idea. After all, you never see the locals in Thailand with baby capsules on their motorcycles. Most cars in Ethiopia don't even have seat belts. And by the time your kids are old enough not to need car seats, it's not that big a deal if they are in cars without seat belts for short periods of time while on vacation, is it?

Recently I sat down to chat with Dr Ben Hoffman (Medical Director of the Safety Centre at the Doernbecher Children's Hospital and Child Passenger Safety Technician Instructor at the NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration)) for an interview for my family travel website suitcases&strollers and got served a shocking reality check.

The following are a few truths he gave me about what we are really doing when we choose not to travel with car seats. Warning: Dr Hoffman does not hold back in his answers. If you have ever traveled with kids in any vehicle without a seat belt you are going to feel very bad about yourself. I certainly did.

• Holding a child on your lap is not the same as putting them in a car seat. Quite the opposite. "It is essentially the same as being totally unrestrained," says Dr Hoffman. "It is never safe to travel with an unrestrained child. Imagine shooting a child out of a cannon at 100 kilometer per hour into a glass window -- that is what happens to an unrestrained child in a crash."

• If you need some numbers to validate what Dr Hoffman is saying, he has them. "A child in a car crash represents an tremendous amount of energy -- in a 30 mile per hour or 50 kilometer per hour crash, an infant will represent more energy than a 10 pound or 4.5 kilogram bowling ball dropped from a third floor window. Any unrestrained passenger becomes a potential projectile being shot out of the vehicle."

• A cloth baby carrier is not a car seat. "With hundreds of pounds of force involved in crashes, a cloth carrier cannot protect a child," warns Dr Hoffman. "The only safe way to transport an infant in a car is in an approved car safety seat."

• Not all seat belts are equal. "It is crucial to always use any booster seat with a seat belt that has both lap and shoulder belts. Never use a booster seat with only a lap belt."

• But what if the car seat is too heavy to carry? What if you have already exceeded your airline luggage allowance? What if it's much cheaper to take a taxi than hire a private driver in a car with seat belts? What if it's only a short ride that's quicker than the length of time it will take to install the car seat? Dr Hoffman's response is pretty blunt. "Simply put, I cannot think of a safe way to transport a child in a car without a car safety seat." Enough said.