Most parents routinely strap their young school-aged kids into boosters, even for a 1-mile trip to the supermarket. But when it comes to carpooling, parents are a lot less consistent in their use of booster seats, according to a study published online in January 2012 by the journal Pediatrics.
Researchers conducted a Web-based survey of a nationally representative panel of nearly 700 U.S. parents, step-parents, or guardians of 4-to-8-year-old children. The study found that social norms may influence whether or not people use booster seats, and that those social norms are often set by state booster seat laws. Another factor was the ability (or inability) of a caregiver to make arrangements to have boosters available for their own child when driving with someone else or for additional child passengers in their own car. This may be why, when discussing a hypothetical scenario, almost 1 out of 10 parents said they would choose a child restraint option that was less than optimal—such as sitting on the lap of another passenger, buckling two children in one seatbelt, or having children ride in the cargo area. Third, and in keeping with prior studies, the results of the survey show a steady decline in the use of child safety seats as children age, specifically when they turn 6, and then even more when they turn 7—around the time that boosters are meant to be used.
Child car restraints are a primary safety tool for children. Your child's weight, height, and age are the most important criteria when choosing a car seat and deciding when to move to the next step. Take a look at our car seat timeline for more information, as well as a video on how to install a booster seat.
"Booster seats are a huge benefit to children because they place the vehicle’s belts over the stronger, bony parts of a child's body, and not over the softer tissue that can be seriously harmed in a crash,” says Jennifer Stockburger, Consumer Reports’ vehicle and child safety program manager. For children who’ve outgrown the height and weight limits of their 5-point harnessed booster, a belt-positioning booster raises a child's body so that a vehicle's safety belts—designed to fit an average adult—fit and protect a child as well as possible.
According to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA), adult seat belts do not fit most children properly. To make them fit, a good booster seat positions the shoulder portion of the vehicle's safety belt evenly between the edge of the child’s shoulder and their neck, and the lap part of the belt low and flat across the upper thighs and hip, not the abdomen. If your child rides with another parent, a booster may be even more important, says Stockburger, “since you don’t know exactly how another person’s vehicle belts will fit on your child’s frame.”
Despite the benefits of boosters, 11 percent of parents of 6-year-olds and 21 percent of parents of children 7-8 years old don’t use them, even though they live in a state where the law requires booster seat use for a child of these ages. Those in states without booster laws were around three times less likely to use them—37 percent of parents of kids aged 6 years, and 63 percent of parents of children 7 to 8 years old. (Check the booster laws in your state to find out the requirements governing child passenger restraint use.)
But graduating a 6-year-old from a booster seat (see our booster seat Ratings and boosters report) to a vehicle seat belt alone compromises his safety. Many 6-year-olds are likely within the weight limits for seats that restrain them using a 5-point harness—a safer option still. This is because the harness spreads the crash forces more evenly over the child's body, and better retains the child in a crash than do the three-point seat belts installed in vehicles. Some harnessed toddler-booster seats have harness limits of 65 lbs. or more. (See our harnessed toddler booster Ratings and booster seats report.) Check the booster seat laws in your state to find out the requirements governing child passenger restraint use.
NHTSA says that children from around age 4 to 8 years should be restrained in a booster seat until the adult belt fits properly—and that all children younger than 13 should ride properly restrained in the backseat. See NHTSA’s child car seat inspection-station locator to find a certified technician who can help install any type of car seat. And learn more about booster seat installation and fit.
At carpool time, the safest bet is to make sure your child, and others’ children, are in a proper restraint. “Always provide the appropriate booster or child restraint for another parent or caregiver if they're transporting your child," urges Stockburger. And only agree to transport children whose parents do the same. NHTSA also recommends you never have more kids in the car than can be safely restrained.
When to move on from a booster
Your child can sit on a vehicle seat, without a booster, when you can answer "yes" to all these questions:
- Does he sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
- Do his knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
- Does the vehicle belt cross his shoulder evenly between the neck and arm?
- Is the lap belt as low on the abdomen as possible, near the top of the thighs?
- Can he stay comfortably seated like this for the whole trip?
More tips from NHTSA for carpooling safely
- Children should be properly restrained at all times.
- Be sure children understand that their safety needs and rules transfer from vehicle to vehicle.
- Adults need to buckle up, too—children do as adults do.
- Only one seat belt or child restraint per child—NO SHARING!
- All children under age 13 should ride properly restrained in a rear seating position of the vehicle.
- Provide older children with good reasons why they must ride in boosters even if their friends don’t—for example, the seat belt doesn’t fit yet, or riding in a booster allows you to see better out of the window.
- Designate routine drivers that are currently licensed and insured; no substitute drivers unless previously approved.
- Have a roster with contact and emergency information for each child.