No car seats, no seat belts, the rise of car safety

Children travelling by car in the ’60s and ’70s were often completely unrestrained and free to rumble around as they pleased.

If you were one of them, you may remember bouncing around in the back seat, or perhaps even sharing the front passenger seat with an adult and a sibling or two as several generations squeezed into the family car for an outing.

No car seats, no seat belts, no nothing… how did we survive?


Early Car Seats

Today, car seats for babies and children have become very sophisticated, with safety being the main priority followed closely by comfort, but it wasn’t always this way. Early car seats were designed simply to contain young children and keep them in one place, there were no safety features whatsoever.

Of course, this was in a time when safety features were not a consideration for any passenger travelling by car. In the UK, it wasn’t compulsory for cars to be fitted with front seat belts until 1967 and, somewhat incredibly, the fitting of rear seat belts only became a legal requirement in 1987.

However, it wasn’t compulsory to wear either of them until 1983 and 1989 respectively, with children under 14 required to wear rear seat belts first, followed by all rear seat passengers in 1991.

Early car seats were designed simply to contain young children and keep them in one place.

Car seats for children had been around since the 1930s, but up until the ’60s, the main purpose of using one was to help the child get a better view out of the car window.

It wasn’t until 1962 when car manufacturers began fitting seat belts that inventors began addressing safety issues. Leonard Rivkin, an American, designed a seat that was effectively a car high chair, and Jean Ames, an Englishman, designed a rear-facing baby seat with a three-point harness. Of course, seat belts were not yet standard fittings in most cars so although more products became available on the market, parents were not quick to buy into the idea of child safety seats.

Multi-purpose, safe and comfortable.

Mothercare sold a multi-purpose “safe-sitter” that could be used as a feeding chair, a toilet chair, a lightweight carry-seat, or a secure car seat.

The “secure” aspect meant hooking it over the back of the car seat, with a high-chair style strap around the child’s middle. By today’s standards, not at all secure!

Safety First

By the late ’60s and early ’70s, the distinction between car seat and safety seat was becoming clearer. The harness design for seats that hooked over the back of the car seat changed to an over the shoulder style, and harnesses that fastened directly onto the car seat became available, and then eventually onto the car’s frame in the same way as a fixed front seat belt.

A booster seat used in conjunction with a fitted safety harness gave younger children the height they needed to see out of the car window, but it’s fair to say that the narrow nylon straps provided little in terms of comfort.

Car seats for children over the age of 3 did not become compulsory until 2006, but did you buy into car safety features back in the day, or did you and your children bounce around freely until the day it became illegal?

Thanks to our friends at Mothercare, who allowed us to photograph their catalogue archive from the 1960s and 1970s.

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