While child booster seat laws vary from state to state, most governing bodies agree that children under the age of six are too small to ride in an adult seat belt without a booster. It is safest to keep a child harnessed in a convertible car seat for as long as they fit the height and weight requirements. After the child has outgrown this seat, the next best option is a high-backed booster seat.
In February of 2006, U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta made a speech that was a call to individual states, 16 of them without any child booster seat laws on the books, to toughen or pass booster seat laws to protect the oldest of passenger children. Mineta stated that less than 20 percent of children who should be in booster seats actually rode in one each day. Although he spoke to the states to enact laws, he also included parents in his plea. He said it was up to parents to make riding in a booster seat the law of the house. According to saferoads.org, all states in the U.S. now have booster seat laws. These laws vary significantly by state. Some laws require booster seat usage up to a certain age while others require booster seats to height, age and weight limits.
Child booster seat laws standardize the practice of booster seat usage. The laws protect young citizens and motivate parents and caregivers to heed the best possible safety practice. Though stringent, booster seat laws are designed to help inform and educate, rather than punish, the public. Fines for not using a booster seat are relatively low, and many states have clauses that allow for a fee reduction if the individual purchases a seat after being cited.
There are two kinds of child booster seats. Belt-positioning booster seats, or high-backed booster seats, have a back that assists in positioning both the child and the seat belt. Backless booster seats have only the seat portion of the booster. The belt-positioning booster seat is best for cars that have low seats or no headrests for the children. Booster seats have an expiration date because the plastic becomes brittle after years of heating and cooling in a car. Check with each manufacturer to learn about the expiration schedule for their seats.
Parents and caregivers often hear many misconceptions about the use of booster seats and child booster seat law. Some common misconceptions include the age at which to move a child from a harnessed car seat to a booster seat that supports the use of lap and shoulder belts to restrain the child. There are many harnessed car seats that will keep a child harnessed well past 40 pounds. Harnessing a child to the weight limit of the car seat is best practice for safety. Some car seats will harness a child to 65 or 80 pounds. The child may need a booster before reaching these weight limits if the tops of his ears are even with the back of the harnessed car seat. The move to a booster seat is a step down in safety and should be carefully considered. Another misconception is that booster seats provide little to no protection to children. While harnessed seats restrain a child and essentially hold them in one position, booster seats allow a range of movement similar to adults in seat belts. The belt positioning booster seat still provides a great deal of protection to its passenger. Booster seats with backs offer side-impact protection and restrain their cargo in the event of an accident. Children 4 feet 9 inches tall may slip under the adult seat belt or project over the adult seat belt if a booster seat is not used. Booster seats can only be used with a lap and shoulder belt combination. Lap belts alone are not safe to use with booster seats. Misconceptions also abound regarding the wording of booster seat laws. Some states require booster seat to a certain age or a certain weight, while other states require the use of booster seats to a certain age and a certain height or weight. It is important for parents and caregivers to read the law for their state and understand it. When in doubt, call the local police or fire department for assistance. These departments typically have trained child passenger safety technicians on hand to answer questions and check for proper installation of car seats.
The Five Point Test
The five point test is what child passenger safety technicians use to determine of a child can safely move to an adult seat belt. This test consists of five questions that all must be answered as "yes" to pass to an adult seat belt. If even one answer is "no," then the child must remain in a booster or harnessed seat. Can the child sit all the way back against the auto's seat? The child should be able to sit back comfortably. Do the child's knees bend at a 90-degree angle at the edge of the seat? The child should not have legs that stick out in front or barely bend at the knees. Does the belt cross the shoulder at the neck and arm? The belt should not ride up toward the chin. Does the lap portion of the belt cross the top of the thighs? Lap belts that cross the abdomen may cause serious internal injuries in the event of a crash. Can the child remain in this position for the duration of the trip? Children cannot fall asleep, slump over, reach toward the floor for objects or otherwise move from this safe position. Many children have a hard time holding this position for developmental reasons. This is often the reason that a child will need to stay in a booster seat. Once a child can pass this test, she is ready to ride in an adult belt. Physically, a child will be around 4 feet 9 inches tall.