Late last year President Bush signed a law that's an important step toward protecting children of all ages and sizes when they ride in motor vehicles. Current federal child restraint standards don't cover kids who weigh more than 50 pounds.
The new law, sponsored by Sen. Peter Fitzgerald (R-Illinois), requires the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to create a comprehensive definition of a booster seat and to develop performance requirements for child restraints and boosters for kids who weigh more than 50 pounds. To help set the requirements, which are due by July 2005, the agency is directed to develop and use a dummy representing a 10-year-old child in crash tests.
Additional provisions direct the agency to complete a rule requiring lap and shoulder belts for each rear seating position and to evaluate the merits of integrated, or built-in, child restraints and boosters, including their cost effectiveness and ease of use.
"The key provision is to develop standards for booster seats for children who have outgrown the seats designed for younger kids. These children may still be too small for adult belts. We know the belts prevent injuries to children, but the protection may not be optimized. Booster seats can help," says Institute chief operating officer Adrian Lund. "However, the boosters being sold for these children haven't been held to a common standard or testing."
A parent buying a booster seat doesn't know if it will improve the fit of an adult belt system until after the booster has been purchased and tried. Some boosters could make adult belts fit worse.
"The new law puts us on the road to preventing such problems," Lund says.
Fitzgerald introduced the federal legislation with a provision to promote state booster seat laws. However, the provision was dropped from the final language.
"It's not time yet for state laws requiring booster seat use. Until we have standards for boosters, just like we already do for the child seats that protect smaller children, more emphasis should be placed on getting children of all ages buckled up, either with or without a booster seat," Lund concludes.
Four-year-old Alexander has outgrown the child seat he used to ride in, but this adult belt doesn't fit. The shoulder portion cuts across his face and neck, and the lap belt is positioned much too high across his stomach instead of lower on his upper legs or pelvis. His knees don't bend at the edge of the seat so he's likely to scoot forward.
Better but still not good
A booster seat might help Alexander. The key is to get the right booster because every one doesn't work for every child in every car. For example, this booster seat routes the shoulder belt better, but the lap belt still is positioned too high across Alexander's stomach. Choosing the right booster seat is difficult because it depends on the specific child, the specific seat, and the specific car model in which the two are positioned.
The law recently signed by President Bush is intended to make it easier for parents to find booster seats like this one, which routes both the lap and shoulder belt portions across Alexander for a better fit.