Accidents involving baby walking frames — in particular falls down stairs resulting in serious head injuries — led to calls for bans of these products in the 1990s. Accidents have sharply declined in the USA following the introduction of a new product design and normative requirements — baby walking frames are stopped when
passing the edge of a step. The Consumer Council has been charged with the preparation of a draft European standard based on the US approach. The standard was adopted in 2007 and is de facto compulsory at present. There is now a high level of safety also for European children.
The use of baby walking frames has been subject of controversy for many years. A number of accidents related to the increased mobility of children have occurred in the past - and they still occur. Children using baby walking frames access dangerous sites very quickly which limits interventions by the carer. This may lead in particular to falls down stairs resulting in severe head injuries.
Scientific literature published in the early eighties have already warned against these hazards. Especially in the United States extensive data on accidents are available. Based on these data some 25.000 children - most of them aged between 5 to 15 months - were treated in hospitals after accidents with baby walking frames in 1993. Cost estimates for such treatment amount to 90 million dollars and 11 fatal accidents were registered between 1989 and 1993. The total number of accidents resulting in injuries was, of course, higher since many accidents were treated by general practitioners - which were not statistically recorded - or did not require medical care.
80 % falls down stairs
About 80 % of the accidents were falls down stairs. In addition, other reasons for accidents such as tip over of the baby walking frames or scalds caused by hot liquids have been registered. In some of the investigations it could also be demonstrated that falls down stairs with baby walking frames result in more serious injuries than falls without baby walking frames. As regards serious injuries, which occur in about 25 % of all cases, head injuries (skull fracture, concussion) prevail. Finally, it was also stated that baby walking frames ranked top in terms of accident frequency in the category baby articles. Investigations in Germany, Austria and many other countries confirmed that the respective data were not substantially different from those collected and recorded in the USA.
Less accidents through new design
Following a call for a ban of baby walking frames by paediatricians and consumer organisations a standard was eventually developed in the United States (ASTM F 977-96) which, amongst other things, was intended to prevent falls down stairs. When tested according to this standard a baby walking frame is pulled towards the edge of a platform (a table with a hardwood surface) and must stop there without falling down. This is achieved by rubber bands, which are fixed on the bottom of the frame of the walker. As soon as the first wheel passes the edge the frame is lowered. The braking effect is achieved by the friction of the sliding rubber bands on the surface of the platform. This simple principle is very effective. According to American data the accident figures have declined sharply after introduction of the new type of baby walkers. Some 25.000 accidents per year in the early nineties could be reduced to about 8.800 accidents in 1999.
Consumer Council Drafts European Standard
Subsequently, European Consumer organisations strived for a mandate by the European Commission for the development of a European standard following the American example which was finally accepted in 1997. At that time a European standard was already in preparation (EN 1273 “Baby walking frame - Safety requirements and test methods”). It did, however, not address the essential risks related to mobility.
Thereupon, a call for tender was issued. Offers were received from seven institutions/ laboratories from Germany, Italy, Portugal, United Kingdom, Netherlands and Austria. Finally the Consumer Council at the Austrian Standards Institute (in co-operation with the Association for Consumer Information) was charged with the preparation of a draft standard.
The existing US standard was not simply taken over. After thorough investigations changes were proposed whereever necessary. Speed measurements were carried out in a Viennese kindergarten school using a baby walking frame equipped with a speedometer. The observed maximum speed was about 4,5 km/h. It turned out that the maximum speed which baby walkers can attain on the test platform following the US test method was only about 3,8 km/h. Hence, a speed increase was proposed. Apart from falls down stairs further aspects have been covered. Test methods for dynamic stability (impact resistance) and parking devices were developed. A summary of the work is available here as PDF-file (“Baby walking frames - Summary”, 11KB).
The report of the Consumer Council was approved by the responsible Technical Committee of the European standardisation organisation CEN (CEN TC 252 “Child use and care articles”) in April 2001. Not all proposals were accepted (e.g. the above mentioned speed increase). Nevertheless the standard will significantly increase the safety of baby walking frames.
It took a fairly long time until the standard was finally adopted in February 2005. One can hardly consider this project, which went on for a total of 8 years, as a shining example of efficient standardisation work. In the end some manufacturers tried to make fall the standard and they almost succeeded.
The next step was the publication of the reference to this standard in the Official Journal of the EU to make it de facto compulsory in Europe. However, this took another couple of years as some groups had called for a ban of baby walking frames following the Canadian example. The Commission postponed the decision to reconsider the issue. It was not until December 2008 that the final decision was taken that the standard meets the general safety requirement of the General Product Safety Directive (2001/95/EC) for the risks it covers. The publication in the Official Journal followed in January 2009.