Roly Bonevacia caught a baby in midair - and learnt a vital lesson
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Roly Bonevacia caught a baby in midair - and learnt a vital lesson

Western Sydney Wanderer Roly Bonevacia has two angels on his right arm: the tattoos remind him of when he made an extraordinary and likely life-saving midair catch off the soccer field.

Not a ball. But a baby. With his hands.  In a high-speed crash.

Bonevacia was in the front passenger seat of a car about 10 years ago when it swerved to avoid a collision with the vehicle ahead, which had braked suddenly in the dark on a high-speed motorway.

The force of the crash turned his baby cousin's children's car seat into a trebuchet, catapulting the child through the air like a missile about to crash through the windscreen. The baby's flight was stopped by the quick response that marks Bonevacia's professional career.

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"To this day, I don't know how I grabbed him and held him tight between my legs," he says of the crash, which occurred in the Netherlands when he was about 16. "I have no idea of how and what, but I grabbed him. It felt so long, but in fact it was so quick."

Just minutes before the incident, one of the straps of the child's restraint in the back seat had been relaxed because he had been crying, allowing the child to be thrown from his child car seat.

"To this day, I don't know how I grabbed him": Roly Bonevacia on catching his baby cousin during the crash.

"To this day, I don't know how I grabbed him": Roly Bonevacia on catching his baby cousin during the crash.Credit:Nick Moir

Thanks to what Bonevacia considers intervention by his guardian angel, instead of flying through the windscreen, the soccer player was able to catch the child mid-air, and hugged him tight between his legs as the car rolled over multiple times before stopping.

"The car was a complete write-off, but we were without a single scratch. It was unbelievable," says Bonevacia. A modest man, Bonevacia thinks his catch may have stopped the child from being injured.  Safety experts say he may saved a life.

Now a parent of two children, aged five and three, Bonevacia doesn't leave anything to chance. "It is not easy: they always complain it is too tight," he says. "They say, 'it is too small', or 'it is too big'. I am saying, 'It is good for you guys, just stay there and sit in your seat'.

"I'd rather have my child complaining than me crying afterwards, saying I should've put him or her in," says Bonevacia, who is now a road safety ambassador for Transport for NSW.

'Phenomenal decrease in trauma'

Incorrect installation and use - such as straps being too loose - of children's car seats is one of the last challenges facing road safety experts specialising in child safety.

The drop in the number of children being killed is one of Australia's great achievements, say safety experts, exceeding most other developed nations. Many other countries are looking now to adopt the Australian model - a combination of legislation, standards, fitting stations and continuous and independent testing as part of the Child Restraint Evaluation Program (CREP) at ChildCarSeats.com.au.

Before legislation and standards for car seats were first introduced in Australia in the 1970s, thousands of children died or faced serious injuries because they were unrestrained.

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In 1978, the worst year for the road toll in NSW, 176 children under 16 died in car crashes, including 42 children under five and 134 children aged five to 16. In 1970, 50 children under five died and 129 under 16 were killed.

In contrast, one child under five died on NSW roads in 2018, and 10 children aged five to 16 years. Between 2005 and 2017, improvements in the quality of child restraints, vehicle safety and safer roads, resulted in a 45 per cent reduction in serious injuries among children aged 16 and under, says Transport for NSW.

"That's an absolutely phenomenal decrease in trauma over such a long time," said Bernard Carlon, director of the NSW Centre for Road Safety.

Victoria has also seen fatalities of children drop from 44 under five in 1970 and 115 under 16 in 1970, when the child restraint standard was introduced, to one child under five in 2018 and eight under 16.

Victoria's Transport Accident Commission's senior road safety specialist, David Young, says child car seats were incredibly effective in protecting children in the event of a crash or heavy braking, but only when they are fitted correctly. “Research shows that children who are incorrectly restrained are up to seven times more likely to be seriously injured in a crash than those with the correct and properly fitted restraints.”

Some early model children's carseats hooked over the back of vehicle's seat.

Some early model children's carseats hooked over the back of vehicle's seat.

One of 11 children, Carlon recalls family holidays in the station wagon in the 1960s and '70s when everyone would pile in the car. Space was so limited that the three youngest - Carlon and his young brothers - would lie on top of the family's luggage in the back.

Many look back on the days of no seatbelts and no children's car seats with a rosy glow. The reality was different, says Carlon. "We know that not wearing a restraint almost guarantees your death. It is clear that the system to protect children [using children's car seats] had an impact on reducing trauma."

Children's car seats back then were rare. Those that were around were often useless, such as wicker baby baskets that rolled around.

Others increased a child's likelihood of dying in a crash. Some hooked over the back of the car seat, with padding that promised to protect the vehicle's upholstery and did nothing to protect the child.

The Trimble car seat.

The Trimble car seat.

An early test conducted in the United States for a children's car seat called a Trimble - similar to models used in Australia - found a child would be savagely sandwiched in a crash as the top of the seat bent forward to bang against the seat in front.

"Trimble could not survive 30 mph (48 km/h) front impact," said the evaluation. "The seat collapsed, wedging the jack-knifed dummy. " The "dummy" (used instead of a real child in the test) was "slammed against the panel".

ABC Four Corners'  John Penlington reported in 1970 that children were often better off without the restraint, and wearing a seatbelt.

There was very little doubt about what would happen,  Dr Michael Henderson, the leading expert in this field for decades, told Penlington.

"In a crash the seat unhooks, and the seat flies forward, and goes right through a windscreen. It raises the child up into a dangerous sort of area. It might add to danger, and I can see little point offering equipment in cars that does not increase safety in a crash."

As car seats developed, innovations sometimes backfired. Some early car seats didn't have crotch straps, which secure a child between the legs. Children would slip down and get stuck even when the car was stationary, recalls Michael Griffiths, a biomedical engineer who led the NSW government's Traffic Accident Research Unit at the time.  If the child was left alone in the car, the outcome could be fatal. As many as nine children may have died this way, including one at Burrill Lake, he says.

After visiting the scene there, Griffiths and a representative from Standards Australia announced seats lacking crotch straps would be recalled immediately. They didn't have the authority to make this decision but both knew it could take months to get any action otherwise.

"We got into deep s--t," says Griffiths. "We knew we'd both be in trouble," he says. "But it was absolutely worth it. By announcing it that day, the seats were recalled, and retro-fitted with crotch straps."  They were later vindicated by a coroner's report.

The Australian model

The first and most important change to save lives was the introduction in 1976 of laws mandating that new cars should have a top tether anchor to secure children's car seats, says Griffiths, who has advised other governments on children's restraints.

The fatality rate dropped so sharply that some ambulance officers called these securely tethered baby capsules "orphan makers", he says. "Everyone in the front seat was dead and the kids were OK."

It took many years until adults even came close to getting the protection - via front, back and knee airbags -  that children had in one of the original Safe 'n' Sound baby capsules.

Testing in 1990 using real world speeds of 100 km/h found that a child in one of these capsules would survive but an adult "had no chance", says Griffiths.

On March 1, 1977, the first law was passed mandating that children under 12 months had to be secured in a child restraint, and children one to 12 years of age had to wear a seatbelt.

More reductions in deaths have occurred with new legislation requiring all children under seven to use appropriate child restraints.

Today the Philippines and Romania are seeking Australian advice as they introduce laws mandating the use of children's car seats.

Eliminating error

Modern car seats have never been safer or more protective if they are used correctly.

Yet global studies have found up to 60 per cent are misused, sometimes causing death and serious injuries.

Dr Julie Brown, a professor at Neuroscience Australia (NEURA) at the University of NSW, has been testing ways to minimise these errors, including testing instructions on parents.

She is working on ways to better communicate how the car seats are meant to be used.

Instead of designs that make these seats difficult to use correctly, she wants to make them "difficult to use incorrectly". This may also include using technology in the vehicle that alerts the driver if a seat is installed incorrectly.

And as more people begin to use ride-share services,  an international group including Brown is looking at how to keep children safe in vehicles that are shared.  "What I think is a solution is integrated restraints and boosters," she says. These would come with the car, instead of being transported by the user.

A car seat collection

Like Bonevacia, a childhood crash had a lasting impact on American collector, Scott, who did not want to provide his surname. His fascination stems from a "traumatic" crash when he was a toddler.

He has an unusual collection of more than 100 children's car seats going back 50 years that he has rescued from the sides of roads or bought from eBay. He also collects documentation about crash tests relating to these seats.

A bit of a hoarder, he admires the ingenuity that went into many seat designs, while admitting many were more dangerous for a child than driving without one.

He particularly likes early car seats that resemble a folding chair, or the tubular ones that were designed to be convenient for the mother and keep the baby happy.

Part of Scott's collection of children's car seats.

Part of Scott's collection of children's car seats.

Scott recalls "bouncing around in the back seat of a car"  unsecured by a children's car restraint or belt while the daughter of a family friend was sitting beside him wearing an early car seat.

When the vehicle crashed, his mother - sitting in the front seat - hit her head on the windscreen. He says he was banged up a bit, while the little girl sitting next to him was untouched.

"I am crying and the little girl is just sitting there, she might have even been giggling,"  says Scott, a railroad engineer in the United States. "It was a long time ago."

Julie Power is a senior journalist at The Sydney Morning Herald.

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