Recently the National Highway Traffic Safe Administration (NHTSA) released updated data on usage and booster seat recommendations based on their 2015 National Survey of the Use of Booster Seats (NSUBS).
The primary purpose of the biannual survey is to estimate booster seat use among 4- to 7-year-old children. The survey also provides estimates on restraint use for all children under 13 and the extent children are “prematurely graduated” to restraint types that are inappropriate for them based on age, height and weight.
“When children are not buckled up or are riding in a seat that isn’t used correctly, their safety is in jeopardy,” said NHTSA Administrator Dr. Mark Rosekind. “You can act by making sure your kids are buckled up and in the right car seats for their age and size.”
The survey says:
- Booster seat use among 4- to 7-year-old children was decreased slightly to 44.5% in 2015.
- 17.9% were properly restrained in child car seats; the percentage of children 4 to 7 restrained in forward-facing car seat decreased slightly from 20.3% in 2013.
- An appropriate child restraint for 4- to 7-year-old children is either a forward-facing car seat or a belt positioning device like a booster seat. However, the NSUBS found that 37.4% of children 4 to 7 years old in the United States were not being properly restrained
- 25.8% were restrained by seat belts
- 11.6% were unrestrained
- Restraint use among 8- to 12-years-old girls decreased significantly to 82.6% in 2015 from 90.5% in 2013.
- Restraint use among children 8 to 12 years old whose height is between 37 to 53 inches decreased significantly to 83.4% in 2015 from 90.0% in 2013.
- Premature graduation to restraint types that are not appropriate for children’s age, height, and weight rose for children 1 to 3 years old as about 13.6% were prematurely graduated to booster seats; a significant increase from 9.3% in 2013.
What are NHTSA’s booster seat recommendations?
The most important of the booster seat recommendations is to use one. Even big kids need to be safe in cars!
NHTSA recommends children remain in a forward-facing car seat with a 5-point harness until the child reaches the top height or weight limit allowed by the seat. At which time, the child can move into a belt positioning device.
A belt positioning device should properly position the seat belt on the child. The shoulder belt should be positioned mid-chest and mid-shoulder. And the lap portion should be across the child’s thighs and hips.
The most common belt positioning device is a booster seat which raises a child up to fit the seat belt. There are other belt positioning devices like the RideSafer travel vest. The RideSafer vest allows the child to sit on the vehicle seat and brings the seat belt down to fit the child. (The RideSafer is certified for and can be used for smaller children in lieu of a forward-facing car seat as well, especially helpful as a secondary seat for travel or carpools.)
Children also need to be mature enough to properly sit in the booster seat. If they are using a no-back booster, children must not adjust the seat belt behind them or under their arm. The RideSafer comes with a tether strap, which we recommend using to help keep younger children properly positioned throughout the drive.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
Remember, in Sweden children remain rear facing until 4 years of age at which time they are turned forward facing in a booster seat. Sweden’s injury and death rate is significantly lower.
Once a child is in a belt-positioning booster seat (or other such device), the child should use that device until the child can pass the 5-step seat belt fit test. This usually doesn’t happen until a child is 4’9″ in height, which is typically when a child is somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12.
One of the common times booster seat recommendations are neglected is when parents are carpooling or bringing friends along to day activities.
Why follow this recommendation?
However, the 2015 NSUBS found that 15.6% of children 8 to 12 years old were unrestrained. Unfortunately, this is an increase from the 10.6% who were unrestrained in 2013.
Booster seats reportedly reduce the risk for serious injury by 45% for children aged 4 to 8 years old compared to using just the seat belt.
Booster seats range in price from $20 to $250. They come in highback (which may have minimum weight of 30 pounds) or backless (which typically have minimum weight of 40 pounds) styles. We don’t recommend one over the other. Many parents start with a highback and move to a no back later. Some highback boosters can be transitioned into no-back boosters.
Backless boosters generally provide better lap belt fit. While highback boosters generally do a better job of positioning shoulder belts and lap belts. A highback will offer some head support and may offer some side impact protection.
The booster seat alternative, RideSafer, costs $165. We consider it better than a booster. RideSafer provides both a good lap belt fit and shoulder belt positioning. When used with its tether strap, it provides four contact points with the body as opposed to three with a booster seat. (When using RideSafer with a lap-only seat belt, the tether strap is required.) Plus, RideSafer offers energy absorption with it’s padded straps. And it keeps the shoulder belt properly positioned even if the child moves.
Compact boosters like the Bubblebum and Mifold are tempting for parents because of their portability. These may be more difficult to use because they require re-threading the lap belt with each use. Mifold doesn’t work well in all cars or with all seat belts, thereby giving poor seat belt fit in some. Unless you know it will work in the particular rental car you reserve, we don’t recommend traveling with Mifold. Bubblebum can be used for travel. Both can be fine spare boosters to keep on hand for extra riders in your car.
Remember you cannot use booster seats with a lap-only seat belt, whether in a car or on an airplane.
We want to know, is your 8 to 12 year old still in a booster seat? Or will your child? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2016 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.
My 9, 6 and 3 year olds all still use britax 5 point harness seats with latch. My little guy was rear facing till 3. I love them too much to risk it over something so simple as a car seat. :)
My son is 8 years old, 64 pounds, and 51 inches tall. He is still in a 5 point harness. The Graco Nautilus Elite 80 allows children to be secure in a 5 point harness up to 80 pounds. All of his friends seem to be in a booster seat with seatbelt or seatbelt only. We prefer our son be as safe as possible!
FYI to all readers and the author: most Latch systems have a max weight limit of 65lbs. That includes the kid plus car seat. In short, you’re not using your car seat properly if you have a kid in a five point harness that weighs more than 40 lbs. Look it up yourselves.
True the Lower Anchors part of LATCH typically has a weight limit that includes the combined weight of the car seat and the child. So if your seat weighs — as many do — 25 pounds, the weight limit for the child (while using LATCH) is 40 pounds. When the child reaches 40 pounds, you can continue using the car seat but will need to install it in the vehicle using the seat belt. Read the blog linked to above for more details.
I have 3 years old niece and I want to save her when we will travel in a car that’s why I was thinking of booster seats with a seatbelt. Can I use them? Thanks for your article.
Hi Sandra, Most booster seats are not rated for 3 year olds any more. They typically are rated for 4 years old and 40 pounds. The RideSafer vest is rated for children 3 years old and 30 pounds. We do recommend if you are using it for a child that small that you also use a tether strap to help keep the child in proper seating position.
Yes! My soon to be 9-year-old will continue to use a booster seat, but it got so much harder this year as practically everyone seems to believe that once a child is 8, they no longer need a booster seat. Supposedly due to some PA state rules. I try explaining to them that the child has to be tall enough for the seat belt to work properly, but it is surprising how the parents just don’t care to hear it. So far no kids have made fun of her for it the way the parents have mocked me for it, but I’m sure it’s not far off!
Good on you Mom! If your child understands that it’s better to be safe than sorry, she hopefully won’t listen any criticism from her friends. She could just respond, “My mom loves me and wants me to be as safe as possible and I do too.”
As we say on our state car seat laws page: “Best practice recommendations and the law don’t always correlate when it comes to car seat laws. Most parents and caregivers assume the law is the safest and what is recommended by safety experts. However, this is not always the case. States’ restraint laws are the result of compromises between the “best practice” recommendations of safety experts and provisions the legislators feel are practical, enforceable, and will be tolerated by the general public and their own constituents. Occupant restraint laws should be considered to be minimum standards.”
And if other parents want to know why it’s such a big deal share with them this link with information about seat belt syndrome.
Hi, should I use car seat or booster seat for 5 years and half to usa
What would you normally use at home? Legally a 5 year old would be OK in a booster seat. But without knowing size or behavior, we can’t make a specific recommendation for your child. A RideSafer would offer protection in between a 5-point harness and a traditional booster seat. It offers 4 points of contact, energy absorbing padding where the seat belt touches the body and the shoulder belt tracks with the child as the child moves. Plus it’s lightweight and portable.
I currently have 2 daughters 11 and 7. Both of them are in seats when we travel. My 7 year old is forward facing in a harness and probably will still be for another year or so. I had an interesting situation with my 11 year old. She is currently about 75 pounds and 53 inches and rode in a booster seat up to 2 months ago. My 7 year old was outgrowing the harness on her current seat. So, I decided to buy a britax 90 pound seat for her. I had it set up in the living room floor to let her try it out. Our phone rang and I went and answered it.
When I came back 15 minutes later I had a good laugh when I saw my 11 year old trying to fit into the britax seat with the harness installed. I went ahead and put the harness on the highest setting and it actually fit her to my surprise. We both had a good laugh about it. However, when I came out to take them to school the next day, my 11 year old was sitting in the Britax seat with the harness done up. Apparently my girls got confused and thought it was acutally for the older one. So, I went ahead and put my 7 year olds older seat back in the car and ordered a second Britax 90. So, both of my girls are back in harness seats now. I’ll probably be dropping my eldest off at her prom in a booster at this point. (Just kidding)
My 10 yo 5th grader still rides in a Britax Blvd 5 pnt harness because she says it just feels safer to her. She is a tiny girl, 66lbs and 51.5″tall. We will be converting it into a hijack booster any day.
My 3 year old daughter has discovered that she can unbuckle her harness in her Nautilus car seat. We’ve been working with her, trying to break this habit, for awhile. My question is, would it be safe to use the regular seat belt with her seat, so that she cannot unbuckle herself no matter what? She is 38lbs and fairly tall for her age.
Do you mean (a) in addition to the car seat harness or (b) removing the harness and using the Nautilus as a booster with the seat belt? (a) You would have to read the car seat manual to be sure but it’s most likely not allowed. (b) Again read the car seat manual to be sure but the lower weight limit for the booster is likely 40 pounds. Also she would still be able to unbuckle the seat belt. You may want to look into something like a RideSafer vest and Buckle Boss Buckle Guard combo to keep her from unbuckling.
My son will be 4 tomorrow. We are looking at boosters that are safest and cheaper end option. I drive a vw Tiguan and hubby drives a Honda civic
I have my 9- and 7- year-olds are still in 5 point harnesses. We occasionally do boosters, if transporting other kids. My 9-year-old is 54 inches and 65 lbs. He has reached the height limit for his seat. Is it still safe? Is there another that won’t break the bank? He is SO wiggly.
Hi Sola, I’m not sure what your “break the bank” point is. There are some Britax seats that have a forward-facing harness height max of 58″ tall like the Frontier Clicktight or Pioneer. A RideSafer travel vest with tether could also help keep him properly restrained.
My daughter tuned 3 in november she is 59lb and 4ft 1in she is very tall for her age as the doctors also say she is not over weight for her age cause of her height she wears a 7 in clothes. The harness is uncomfortable on her and she doesn’t like it anymore cause it’s tight on her shoulders we use a diano carseat five point harness what is your recommendation on a seat for her ms AMIE
Hi Krista, Without more specifics ie. which Diono seat, what specifications does the seat mention, what level are the harness straps at, etc. I do not feel I can answer that question properly. I would suggest you take your daughter and the seat to a local CPS technician so the technician can see your daughter in the seat and better determine what the next step is.
My twin 11 year olds are in boosters, as is their 9 year old sister. One twin could come out, based in height, but my car has no headrest and the booster helps keep his neck supported and safe in case of an accident. So, until they reach height, and weight or their 18 (haha) they will be in boosters.
My husband and I purchased a Britax Highpoint and Britax Skyline booster seats. Our daughter will be 4 next month, weighs 45 pounds and is 43 inches tall. We have been using a Britax Marathon car seat, and she tells me that is uncomfortable. I’m still very nervous about transitioning to the Britax Highpoint and Britax Skyline. My 4 year old is very mature and is good at following directions. So I’m more nervous about the safety aspect rather than her maturity. Thank you for the advice!
My son is 4 years old and is 3 feet and 4 inches tall not sure about his weight probably almost 40 pounds are alittle over he is still in a toddler carseat can I move him too a harness booster ?thanks
Hi Elizabeth, By “harness booster” I assume you mean a car seat which transitions from a 5-point harness seat to a booster. We would recommend using that seat as a 5-point harness seat until your child reaches the upper most limits of the harness (these vary depending on which seat) before transitioning him to using it as a booster.
I noticed the Britax frontier harness didn’t perform well in crash tests for kids over 40lbs. I really liked the fact that their harness goes up well beyond the 40 lb weight limit but am certainly deterred by the fact consumer reports doesn’t recommend the harness above 40 lbs. thoughts? Alternate recommendations?
Hello Kerry. Honestly, I have not personally read the CS report on this product but I did ask around to other CPST Instructors and the word is that all of them would feel 100% confident with transporting their child in the Frontier in the 40-65 weight range. Over 65, assuming no extenuating circumstances like special needs, they would likely transition their child to a seatbelt positioning device like the RideSafer vest or booster seat.
Based on other research in the industry, there is a non specific point where the benefits of a 5pt harness diminish as the child gets larger. You see, the restraining force is (loosely) calculated as Speed x Weight. As the child’s weight goes up the restraining force does too which, in a 5 pt harness, all that force must be transferred to the harness –> to the shell of the seat –> to the straps (or seatbelt) that are holding the seat in the car and finally to the anchors in the car. Every step in this process adds “stretch” or “ride-down” into the equation as a crash unfolds. This set of circumstances allows the child’s head to travel further and further in the crash. At some point, assuming appropriate maturity, the child would be “safer” (by at least this one measure, in this one crash scenario) in a seat belt positioning device where the child is being restrained by the seat belt directly vs the seat belt holding the shell of a car seat, which is holding the harness straps, which are holding the child.
Car crashes are a very complex physics scenario with untold variables, which are virtually impossible to reproduce in a crash lab. At the end of the day, hopping in the car is a dangerous activity and we all take reasonable steps to mitigate the risks by wearing our seatbelts, driving defensively and using certified restraint systems for our kids. The sad reality is that sometimes the best we can do is reduce potential injury and death vs eliminating it.