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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 8 | SPECIAL ISSUE: BOOSTER SEATS | October 1, 2008 Subscribe

Children ride in adult belts before they're ready, survey shows

Using a safety belt greatly reduces the risk of injury to children in crashes, but belts often aren't as effective as they could be for young children who have outgrown child restraints. These kids need booster seats to elevate them so lap and shoulder belts are properly positioned. Yet lots of 4-7 year-olds aren't riding in boosters. Last year, 35 percent of children in this age group rode in adult belts compared with 37 percent in boosters and 13 percent in child restraints. This is about the same percentage in boosters as in 2006.

These are the findings of the National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats, conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. This survey also found that 15 percent of 4-7 year-olds were unrestrained. Twenty-five percent of 6 and 7 year-olds were in boosters during 2007, while 55 percent used safety belts, and 16 percent weren't restrained at all.

The problem of premature graduation into the next level of restraint isn't confined to booster-age children. Some infants are moved too soon out of their rear-facing restraints, and some toddlers are moved out of front-facing child seats before they're big enough for boosters. The survey notes that 21 percent of children weighing 20-40 pounds rode in boosters in 2007, even though most child restraints can accommodate kids heavier than 40 pounds. Some of these children were as young as 1 year. Ten percent of children in this weight group were restrained by belts alone. Some boosters are designed for children weighing as little as 30 pounds. However, this doesn't mean a child this small automatically should move into a booster. Some child restraints are made for kids weighing 65 and even 80 pounds. There also are boosters for kids up to 100 pounds.

"A forward-facing child restraint with a 5-point harness generally offers a better fit and more protection for children at the younger and smaller end of the booster-age group," says Anne McCartt, Institute senior vice president for research. "Some parents may rush to trade up to the next level because their children resist riding in restraints they consider babyish. The kids would prefer a more grown-up booster or even an adult safety belt, but they'll be safer if parents wait to move them."

All children 12 and younger should ride in back seats. Infants should stay in rear-facing restraints until they're at least 1 year old or weigh 20 pounds. Some newer models can accommodate babies up to 30 pounds, so parents can keep using rear-facing restraints even after the first birthday. Then children graduate to forward-facing seats until they're about 4 years old and weigh 40 pounds. Only then does a booster become an appropriate option.

Children should ride in boosters until they're 4 feet, 9 inches tall, usually around age 8. They need to be big enough to sit firmly against the seatback, with knees bent at the edge of the cushion. The lap belt should cross the upper thighs, and the shoulder belt should be on the middle of the shoulder.

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