Car Seat Best Practices & 5-Step Seat Belt Fit Test

Car Seat Best Practice Recommendations

The National Highway Traffic Safety Admin. (NHTSA) has developed a “4 Stages for Kids” guide for parents, the essence of which we will share with you here with some explanation included — along with our + Stage that goes way at the very beginning.

+ Stage is during Pregnancy:

Current recommendations by NHTSA is to wear the lap belt low “under” the pregnancy and the shoulder belt properly placed on the shoulder and crossing the body midchest. While it is safer to wear the seat belt than not to and this is a safe way to wear the seat belt during pregnancy, it does not offer optimum protection as the pregnant woman and her baby is at risk of injury from the seat belt itself.

The Tummy Shield redirects the seat belt completely away from the pregnancy and creating a leg harness (think, race car driver). Technically the Tummy Shield is an “unregulated” product (just like seat belts or car seats were at their inception) and the U.S. doesn’t have any standards to which to test products like this.

“The fact is that seat belts don’t have to pass any pregnancy-related safety standards either so NOT using the Tummy Shield is just as much of a judgment call,” says one fellow CPS technician who used it during her pregnancy.

pregnancy and seatbelts
Stage 1 is Rear Facing (birth to outgrow the convertible car seat rear facing specifications — typically 3 or 4 but at the very minimum until age 2):

Children MUST be rear facing at this stage of development. Why? All car seats are crash tested for a forward impact as this is the most common type of crash. In a forward impact the child’s head, neck and back are supported by the child restraint during the first and most intense phase of the crash.

“Why is that important,” you may ask. Not until a child is much older—some time after 2-years-old (twice as old as a 1-year-old)—are the bones of their neck STARTING to be strong enough to resist the massive amounts of force experienced in a car crash as their neck tries to keep their disproportionally large heads attached to their bodies. According to medical experts, even just 1/4 inch of elongation of the spinal cord is enough to cause permanent disability or death.

The absolute minimum age at which a child should be turned forward facing is 2-years-old, which is the age which many state car seat laws are now requiring. It is best if they remain rear facing to the upper rear-facing height/weight limit of their child restraint seat (this is getting to be higher and higher). Once the child outgrows the rear-facing seat they are ready for a forward-facing seat.

rear-facing car seat
Stage 2 Forward Facing (typically 2 or 3 to 4 or 5 years old):

At this stage children are almost always forward-facing. (However, not to exclude the possibility, there are becoming more seats capable of handling taller/heavier kids rear facing and parents taking the AAP recommendation to heart and keeping their children rear facing beyond 3 years old.) Children should remain in a forward-facing harnessed child restraint to the upper limits of that restraint. Once a child outgrows their conventional 5-point harness system (these too are getting higher and higher weight/height limits) a belt-positioning device, like a RideSafer vest or booster seat, is recommended by NHTSA and AAP.

stage 2 car seat forward facing

Why don’t they mention/recommend the RideSafer travel vest? The reality is that it is a matter of language and lack of awareness that the vest exists. This is the direct quote from the AAP statement dated March 21, 2011, “then a booster will make sure the vehicle’s lap-and-shoulder belt fit properly. The shoulder belt should lie across the middle of the chest and shoulder, not near the neck or face. The lap belt should fit low and snug on the hips and upper thighs, not across the belly.” The RideSafer® vest accomplishes every one of these criteria and does it by bringing the seat belt down to the child and holding it in place with the vest itself and belt positioning guides versus “boosting” the child to the adult seat belt.

Stage 3 Belt Positioning Device (typically 4 or 5 to 8 to 12 years old — when they can pass the 5-step test):

It is recommended that children be in a belt-positioning device (booster seat or RideSafer®) until they can properly fit the vehicle’s seat belt, which is typically more to do with height than with age or weight. Most children can fit the seat belt when they reach 4’9″. To be sure do the 5-Step Seat belt Fit Test (described below).

Stage 4 Vehicle Seat Belts (typically when a child reaches the height of 4’9″ and can pass test below):

Once they pass the 5-Step Seat belt Fit Test (described below) children should be restrained with a lap shoulder seat belt. Children should remain in the back seat of the vehicle until they are 13 years old.

stage 3 car seat belt positioning booster ridesafer

5-Step Seat Belt Fit Test

Are you TALL enough for this ride?

Children under 4 feet 9 inches tall should use a belt positioning device until they can pass the 5 step seatbelt fit test.

  • Kids should use a belt positioning device until they pass the 5-step seat belt test (see image to the left for the 5 steps, get more details about the 5 steps here).
  • Proper use of a belt positioning device reduces the risk of serious injury.
  • A child seat with a harness is best for kids until at least 40 lbs. (We think the RideSafer® is a great alternative while traveling or for play dates so you don’t have to carry a larger child restraint or go without.)
5 step seat belt fit test

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