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Last week, I had a post discussing a proposal in Texas to make use of child booster seats more prevalent. Later that week, a new study came out in Accident Analysis and Prevention magazine that found that even many of those using booster seats were using them improperly.

I can’t stress enough how important proper usage of booster seats is to the safety of your children. Seat belts aren’t designed for children. The belts don’t fit their bodies properly and can lead to dangers. For example, the belts may hit the kids’ bodies the wrong way in a wreck causing internal injury or strangling of the child. A child could also slip out of the belt and become an object flying around the car. Proper usage of the belts raises the child and adjusts the seat belt so that it fits the kid. The American Academy of Pediatrics issued these instructions in its 2009 Car Seat Guide:

Booster seats are for older children who have outgrown their forward-facing car safety seats. It is best for children to ride in a harnessed seat as long as possible, at least to 4 years of age. If your child outgrows his seat before reaching 4 years of age, consider using a seat with a harness approved for higher weights and heights. A child has outgrown his forward-facing seat when any one of the following is true:

  • He reaches the top weight or height allowed for his seat with a harness. (These limits are listed on the seat and also included in the instruction booklet.)

  • His shoulders are above the top harness slots.

  • His ears have reached the top of the seat.

Booster seats are designed to raise the child up so that the lap and shoulder seat belts fit properly. High-back and backless booster seats are available. They do not come with harness straps but are used with the lap and shoulder seat belts in your vehicle, the same way an adult rides. Booster seats should be used until your child can correctly fit in lap and shoulder seat belts. Booster seats typically include a plastic clip or guide to help ensure the correct use of the vehicle lap and shoulder belts. See the instruction booklet that came with the booster seat for directions on how to use the guide or clip.

Installation tips for booster seats

Booster seats must be used with a lap and shoulder belt (never a lap-only belt). When using a booster seat, make sure

  • The lap belt lies low and snug across your child’s upper thighs.

  • The shoulder belt crosses the middle of your child’s chest and shoulder.

Common questions

Q: What if my car only has lap belts in the back seat?
A: Lap belts work fine with infant-only, convertible, and forward-facing seats. They cannot be used with booster seats. If your car only has lap belts, use a forward-facing car safety seat with a harness and higher weight limits. Other options are

  • Check to see if shoulder belts can be installed in your vehicle.

  • Use a travel vest (some can be used with lap belts).

  • Consider buying another car with lap and shoulder belts in the back seat.

Q: Is there a difference between high-back and backless boosters?
A: Both types of boosters are designed to raise your child so the seat belts fit properly. High-back boosters are useful in vehicles that do not have head rests or have low seat backs. Many seats that look like high-back boosters are actually combination seats. They come with harnesses that can be used for smaller children and can then be removed for older children. Backless boosters are usually less expensive and are easier to move from vehicle to vehicle. Backless boosters can be safely used in vehicles with headrests and high seat backs.

Please, read the instructions on your booster seat and make sure your child is using it properly. This is a very hard lesson to learn after the fact.

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