Under Germany’s road traffic laws, drivers are under a high duty of care when it comes to the safety of their passengers. According to a recent court ruling, this includes an obligation to constantly monitor children in the vehicle to ensure they have not unfastened their seat belt.
Road traffic law: Responsibility for seatbelts and children
Drivers in Germany are under a high duty of care when it comes to their passengers’ safety. A recent court ruling clarified that this duty includes having to constantly monitor any children in the vehicle to ensure that they have not unfastened their seatbelts (case ref. 5 RBs 153/13). Drivers who fail to fulfil this duty face a fine of €40.
The judgment was handed down after police noticed that a four-year-old child was not secured in her seat. The driver claimed that he had not noticed that his daughter had unfastened her seatbelt and that she had not unfastened her seatbelt before. Despite his protestations, the father received a 40 euro fine.
The Higher Regional Court of Hamm confirmed that drivers are under a general obligation to ensure the safety of their passengers. This includes permanently monitoring any children to ensure they have not unfastened their seatbelts. According to the court, if drivers are unable to fulfil this obligation, they should delegate responsibility to another person in the vehicle.
Unreasonably high duty of care
If one considers the unusually broad scope of this judgment and the fact that a driver’s primary concern is concentrating on the traffic, it becomes clear that drivers can hardly be expected to comply with such a duty. Drivers cannot be expected to permanently monitor children on the back seat of their vehicle, especially during rush hour or on motorways. A driver distracted as a result of having to constantly monitor back seat passengers would pose a danger to other road users.
The duty to organise an accompanying person to monitor the children is no practicable alternative. Such a duty places an unreasonably high burden on drivers. Firstly, in the case of single parents for example, it cannot always be guaranteed that a driver can find a second person to travel with them. Secondly, on longer journeys, an accompanying person may themselves not always notice if a child removes their seatbelt.
On the other hand, the court’s ruling has to be seen in light of its attempts to promote the safety of children in vehicles. Here, the court may have been well aware that some careless drivers will simply assert that they “did not notice” that their children had unfastened their seatbelts in order to avoid a fine.
Nevertheless, it is doubtful whether the court in this case was justified, through the imposition of a general and far-reaching duty to monitor children, in categorising all drivers as potentially careless.