Booster Seat Protection 101: Boosting Your Family’s Safety Quotient

Feeling a little lost when it comes to booster seat rules and regulations? Take a class in booster seat protection!

Joyce Brandon is in a tight spot. For now, her children are strapped safely in the backseat of the family’s sedan. But add one more child to the mix, and the Brandons may have to upgrade to a larger vehicle. “I don’t have room for anyone to sit in the middle of my back seat,” says the 29-year-old mother of two from Alexis, Illinois, whose two- and six-year-olds ride opposite one another in their car and booster seats. “And I am very disappointed that there isn’t a way to shut off the passenger airbag so that if we needed to transport another child, my [six-year-old] son could sit in the front seat in his booster seat,” she laments.

Brandon is not alone in her dilemma. Currently, 22 U.S. states have mandatory booster seat laws, and legislation is pending in many more. While increased use of booster seats will surely save lives, there’s been an apparent lack of education on their need as well as well as their proper use, leaving even diligent parents like Brandon in the dark about how best to protect their children.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, just 10 to 20 percent of American children aged four to eight are currently being restrained in booster seats. In contrast, 94 percent of toddlers are properly restrained.

Why is it so important that your big kid ride in a booster seat? What do you do if it’s your turn to drive the community carpool? And how do you know when a child is ready to move out of his booster seat to a seat belt?

We asked Lorrie Walker, Training Manager and Technical Advisor for the SAFE KIDS Buckle Up Program, a division of the national non-profit agency dedicated to the prevention of unintended childhood injury, to provide answers to some frequently asked questions about booster seats. (Some additional information was provided by The American Academy of Pediatrics.)

Who should be in a booster seat?

“The current recommendations for booster seats are for children to be in them up to four feet, nine inches and up to eight years of age,” says Walker.

What is the purpose of a booster seat?

Booster seats raise children to the level where adult-sized seat belts fit right, explains Walker. “In a vehicle, every piece of safety equipment was designed to fit an adult who is five feet, ten inches and 160 pounds,” she explains. “When you take your child to buy their first winter coat, you don’t buy an adult-sized coat, knowing that they are going to grow into it at some point. You buy a child-size coat. It’s really the same principle. Car seats modify the adult equipment to fit the child so that the child gets the safe protection.” (According to, improper use of seat belts put children at risk of serious and often fatal injuries to the internal organs and spinal column.)

Is there more than one type of booster seat? If so, which is right for my child?

“There are two types of booster seats—high back boosters and backless boosters,” explains Walker. “They both meet the same standards—it’s just what’s right for your vehicle. A high back booster is especially good if you have a van with very low seat backs, with no head restraint. In that case, the child has at least some head protection.”

What about shield-style booster seats?

Shield-style booster seats are unsafe and have been linked with serious injuries, cautions the American Academy of Pediatrics. If you are using an older booster seat with a removable shield and your child is over 40 pounds, you may remove the shield and use the seat as a backless belt positioning booster. Better yet, buy a newer model booster seat.

I don’t have shoulder belts in my vehicle. Can I use just the lap belt to position the booster seat? If not, how can I position my booster seat(s)?

Belt positioning booster seats are made for use with a shoulder positioning seatbelt along with a lap belt. Shoulder belts should be positioned across the child’s chest—never behind them or under their arms.

To position your seats, you can have shoulder belts retrofitted, says Contact your vehicle manufacturer to request a retrofit kit and take it to a dealer for installation. Alternately, you can use a harness system (such as the 86-Y made by E-Z-On), or a forward facing child safety seat with a five-point harness and a higher weight limit.

How do I know if my child’s booster seat fits properly?

With a belt positioning booster seat, the shoulder belt should fit flat on the collar bone and the lap belt should fit snugly across the thighs, says Walker. (For recommendations specific to your child’s age and weight, consult the online safety guide at

You can also have your seat checked by a certified technician at a local inspection station. To locate an inspection station visit or and click on “Fitting/Inspection Stations.” SAFE KIDS is the official training and certification agency for car seat technicians. To find the nearest SAFE KIDS Buckle Up Checkup, go the SAFE KIDS homepage and click on “Find Coalitions and Events Near You.”

My six-year-old has been out of a car seat for two years, but now the law in our state requires him to be in a booster seat. How do I make the move back into a seat easier?

“Sometimes, with older kids the issue is they don’t want their friends to see them sitting on a booster seat,” says Walker. “If you have head restraint, and your child is not right out of the car seat, but a little bit older, the backless booster is an option They climb in and they put the seatbelt on. It adjusts to fit them, but they have head restraint.”

My four-year old refuses to ride in a booster seat. What should I do?

“It’s your job to help her understand that this is not negotiable,” says Walker. “If he wants to stick a fork in the electric socket, are you going to let him just because he wants to? A booster or a car seat is like an immunization. It’s up to the parents to say, ‘Look I know you don’t want to have a needle to protect you from diphtheria, pertussis and tetanus, but it’s my job as your parent to make sure that you’re safe.’ And it’s the same thing with a car seat or a booster seat or a seat belt. Kids will cry for a second, and then they get over it.”

My child frequently rides with a parent of a friend who does not use booster seats. I insist that my child rides in a booster while in their car, and it causes friction. How do convince this parent to support me?

“If you’re carpooling, make a pact and don’t compromise,” advises Walker. “If you’ve got three kids, then all three kids are going to ride in a booster seat.”

Parents joining together to establish behavior works for older as well as younger children, suggests Walker. Establishing ground rules at a young age will pave the way for negotiating larger battles later on. “When your child becomes 11 and wants a curfew time, if all of the parents have a 10:30 pm curfew time, then it’s not so hard on a child. And when a child becomes 15, the rules for how we ride in a car driven by a teenage driver are going to be established. When all of the parents get together and say the same thing, it’s very helpful.”

My vehicle backseat is equipped with the shoulder belts needed to position booster seats, but with three booster seats, it’s a tight squeeze. How can I fit multiple seats into a small space?

“You can look at another booster seat, because some of them are more narrow than others,” says Walker. “You might be able to have two bigger ones on the outboard and one skinnier one in the center.” (Narrow booster seats on the market currently include the Britax product line. Convenience comes, with a price, though. You’ll notice that these upscale models, while of good quality, are more costly than their more generic competitors.)

What is the danger of riding in the front seat?

Front airbags can deploy, causing serious injury. “The message that we really want parents to know is that anybody who is riding in that front passenger seat is at risk if they are out of position, but particularly children, because they are shorter,” says Walker, “and the airbag, instead of coming out and hitting at chest level, would really be hitting at face and neck and head level.”

I need to transport several children ages eight and under, and there are not enough seating positions in my backseat to accommodate all of them. What should I do?

All children ages 12 and under should ride in the backseat, says When this is impossible, advises the agency, and only as a last resort, an older child who can be trusted not to lean forward can be placed in the front (in a booster seat if they are age eight or under, or if older, using the lap and shoulder belt).

If your vehicle has an airbag switch, turn it to “off.” If not, try this test to see if your vehicle can be adapted, says Walker: “Move the seat back as far as possible, then sit in the seat and extend both arms. If you can’t touch the dashboard, the child is probably not going to interact with the airbag.” If you seat a child in the front, adds Walker, it must be clear that he absolutely can’t lean forward once he’s in that position.

Where do I find information on safety seats for my special needs child?

Visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website and search for the keyword: car safety seat. Or you can also visit the Automotive Safety Program at Riley Hospital for Children.

How will I know when my child is ready to move out of a booster seat and into a seat belt?

When your child is around eight years of age and four feet, nine inches tall, Walker suggests trying this five-step readiness test:

  1. Have your child sit with her bottom on the vehicle seat with his back erect against the seat. Can she sit this way comfortably?
  2. Do her knees bend at the edge of the seat?
  3. Does the lap belt stay down low on the hips—almost touching the tops of the legs?
  4. Does the shoulder belt sit on the collar bone—in between the shoulder and the neck so it is not riding on the neck?
  5. Can the child can hold that position for the entire time that she is going to be in the vehicle?

If the answer to all of the above questions is yes, says Walker, then your child is ready to sit in a seat belt. Because different vehicles have varying seat widths and anchors, this test should be performed for most of the vehicles a child is going to ride in, Walker advises.

My children’s booster seats are correctly installed in my vehicle, but I sometimes need to move them to another one. Is this OK?

“It’s better to have the number of seats in your car that you need in your car and for whoever your child is going with, for them to have the seats in their car that are already installed,” advises Walker. “You really want it to be right. Booster seats do fit a lot better (than car seats), but there are issues with some cars and you should pay attention to them.”

Can my child ride in his booster seat on an airplane?

No, the Federal Aviation Administration has not approved booster seats for use in airplanes, as aircraft are not equipped with shoulder harnesses necessary for the use of belt-positioning boosters. If you wish to take your child’s booster with you on a flight, you may check it with baggage. (For tips on flying safely with children, consult the Fly Smart Traveler’s Checklist.

Do booster seat laws include school buses?

Not in most states. School buses are generally exempt from the law.

How can I find out if my child’s booster seat has been recalled?

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a database of recalled seats. You’ll need to know the name of the seat manufacturer and the model, the model number, and the date of manufacture, says Walker. “The date is most important,” she explains, “They may have recalled a certain model two years ago, but they fixed the issue, and now its fine.”

What is the penalty for failing to comply with booster seat laws?

Offenders may be penalized with a monetary fine, which vary from state to state. In New York, for example, fines range from $25 to $100, but may be waived if proof of purchase of a booster seat is presented within a specific timeframe. SAFE KIDS, however, discourages this policy.

Why don’t all states have booster seat laws? And where can I find out what the booster seat law in my state is?

Legislation is catching up with current safety research. Still, tremendous progress has been made. In 2001, only two U.S. states (California and Washington) had laws requiring older children to ride in booster seats. Today, that number is over 22. Still, there are gaps in existing laws. In North Carolina, for example, a child may ride unrestrained if a parent is “attending to his or her personal needs” and a driver can transport children without restraints, regardless of age, “if all other seating positions in the vehicle are occupied by other restrained passengers.” In addition, in many states there is no legislatively mandated public education campaign, placing serious gaps between child restraint laws and consumer awareness. To find the laws for your state, go to and click on “Learn about child safety laws.”

How can I help improve child passenger safety in my community?

Most importantly, you should model safety at home. Use the correct safety seats for your child and vehicle, and insist that everyone who transports him do so also. Secondly, get involved! Contact your local or state SAFE KIDS coalition to find opportunities that match your interest and skills!

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