Several years ago I wrote a post on booster seats (I’m 9 Years Old – Do I Really Still Need a Booster Seat?) about how my then 9 year old son didn’t want to keep using a booster seat in the car because none of his friends did anymore and he felt he was old enough to use the regular seat belt. The point of the article was that guidelines issued in 2011 recommended using a booster seat until a child reaches 4’9” tall (57 inches) and weighs between 80 and 100 pounds – generally in the range of 8-12 years of age. This continues to be one of our most read posts on the site and still gets occasional comments – which indicates the ongoing confusion and lack of clear laws and communication about what constitutes safe car travel for our older kids.
Recently one of our readers asked a very good question about my post – which warranted some extra research:
My car (Jeep Cherokee, older) has a bench seat in back, and the back of the seat is somewhat low. If my 8 year old son is not in a booster, his head and neck are against the seat and supported; in a booster, his shoulders, neck and head are above the seat back and completely unsupported. In a wreck, that booster would cause his neck to be snapped. I really hate that the law forces me to endanger him that way with the booster. Buying a new car isn’t an option, and I wish there were some sort of aftermarket option that was safe and crash-tested, which would allow the belt to fit him and keep him out of the booster. Suggestions?
To get an expert perspective on this issue, I turned to Stephanie Tombrello, LCSW, CPSTI, Executive Director of SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. According to Tombrello, “if a parent has a vehicle with a low-back vehicle seat, the immediate recommendation is a high back booster. There are many options in every price range and with a variety of backs.” The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has a recommended list of “Good Bets” for booster seats in 2015, many of which are high back models. Additionally, “for some children, the Dorel (Safety 1st) Incognito booster for children 60-120 lbs. can be low enough to allow for fitting the belt properly while not placing the child high in the vehicle,” says Tombrello.
If none of these options suit, parents can consider an alternative to booster seats – the Safe Traffic System RIDESAFER Travel Vest – which Tombrello also recommended. These vests, which are billed as the world’s first wearable child restraint system, reduce the load transferred to the child in a crash, thereby providing better safety. However, please note that these vests are limited to a weight of 80 pounds and height of 57 inches.
Virtually no US laws make it clear that children need booster seats until adult belts fit – and there’s little guidance to parents on how to determine fit. Tombrello cautions “that children must be able to pass the 5-Step Test before dispensing with a booster. The potential injuries to the bowel or stomach from the misplaced lap belt are significant.” See the box below for the steps to take to determine if and when your child can graduate to adult seat belts – and go to www.carseat.org for more information on protecting children and pregnant women in the car.
The 5-Step Test
1. Does the child sit all the way back against the auto seat?
2. Do the child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the auto seat?
3. Does the belt cross the shoulder between the neck and arm?
4. Is the lap belt as low as possible, touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated like this for the whole trip?