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Take the 5-Step Seat Belt Fit Test

5-step seat belt fit test

Think your child is ready to get out of that booster seat? It’s time to give your child the 5-step seat belt fit test to find out if your child really is ready for just the seat belt.

As I drive around town the number of kids I see improperly restrained, unrestrained or sitting in the front seat scares me.

5-step seat belt fit test

Having been a Child Passenger Safety (CPS) Technician for many years now I can understand my husband’s desire to follow people home to educate them about properly restraining their children in the vehicle. He probably shouldn’t do that and as far as I know he’s only done it once and while he was in his firefighter uniform. Of course, he has the best of intentions. He wants to see every child safe in the car. Just the other day we saw a infant riding in the car in the arms of someone sitting in the front seat of a vehicle driving behind us. Oh, the number of children I see in the front seat so obviously too short to be riding without a booster seat.

I know parents ultimately want to keep their children safe. So I wonder, do these parents just not know?

Is your child riding in the car safe?

4 + stages of car seats

Apparently a lot of parents just do not know. A Safe Kids survey showed 9 in 10 parents are moving their children from booster seats to a seat belt before they reach the recommended height, weight or age.

“Parents let their kids move out of booster seats far too early,” says Kate Carr, past president of Safe Kids Worldwide. “It was really startling to us how many parents did not know how tall their children had to be before they could safely move them from a booster seat into the regular seat in a car.”

The statistics say the booster age range child is the most likely to not use a proper child restraint. I’ve heard a lot of excuses for this. Most often the excuse is, “my child is older and thinks a booster seat is for babies.”

A survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and Consumer Reports in 2015 showed more than a quarter of 4- to 7-year-olds are prematurely transitioned out of their booster. Some kids will be tall enough to transition out of a booster when they are 8 years old. Most won’t. Most children won’t be ready until they are 10 to 12 years old.

But the law says…

Many states don’t mention height in their car seat laws. Many say children can stop using a child restraint at age 8. (I say child restraint here instead of booster seat as most states say child restraint and do not specify “booster seat.”) Some states require age 8 or 80 pounds.

But some states do mention a height requirement of 4’9″. Sometimes the state car seat law will say age “and” height meaning they have to be both that age and height. And sometimes the law will say age “or” height meaning the child has to be one or the other but not necessarily both to be legally allowed to be out of a child passenger safety seat.

As mentioned earlier not all 8 year olds are tall enough to properly fit in the seat belt. So while your state law may say it’s OK at 8 years old, it may not be safe. The general rule of thumb is the child needs to be at least 4 foot 9 inches tall to fit properly. It really depends on how the seat belt fits and it can vary from car to car or even seat to seat in the same car.

Our oldest 5 stepped into just the seat belt in the third row seat of our Honda Pilot earlier than he did the middle row. He’s always been above average tall for his age (he’s 14 years old and 5’11” now) and he 5-stepped at 9.5 years old. No matter what age your child is, best practice is to try the 5-step seat belt fit test before moving your child to the vehicle’s seat belt to prevent possible injuries.

The 5-step seat belt fit test

5 step seat belt test

Before a child should be sitting in just a vehicle seat belt, he or she needs to meet the following five seat belt fit criteria called the 5-Step Seat Belt Fit Test:

1 – Shoulder belt crosses between the neck and shoulder.

If the shoulder belt is too close to the neck, kids can be tempted to put it behind their back for comfort.  A shoulder belt that sits off the shoulder can slip off during a crash, reducing its ability to protect.

2 – Lower back is against the vehicle seat.

If the child is sitting with their bottom forward to allow their legs to go over the edge of the seat in order to feel comfortable, a gap is created between their back and the seat. This will cause the seat belt to ride up out of position onto their belly. It can also introduce slack in the seat belt which will allow the child to move forward more during a crash. Both of these can cause increased injury in a crash.

3 – Lap belt stays on the upper thighs across the hip bones.

If the lap portion of the belt is across the soft tissue of the abdomen (like will happen if their back isn’t against the vehicle seat), it can damage internal organs in a crash.

4 – The knees bend at the end of the seat.

Kids will scoot their bottom forward to let their knees bend comfortably, increasing their risk of injury because the seat belt rides up off of their hips and onto the soft part of their belly. They need to be tall enough to have their knees comfortably bend at the edge of the seat.

5 – The child can ride like this for the entire ride.

We don’t expect the child to be perfectly still while riding in the car. And their movement or readjustment to stay comfortable cannot lead to the seat belt getting out of position. When children get uncomfortable they tend to slouch, lean to one side or put the shoulder belt behind them. When the seat belt is out of position, it cannot properly protect the child during a crash.

Children who move excessively aren’t ready for a booster much less just the seat belt. They may be better off remaining in a 5-point harness car seat or RideSafer with tether.

Sometimes children will meet these five criteria in some seats/cars but not in others because different seat belts in different seats/cars fit differently. For instance the third row usually has a shorter seat so children’s legs will bend at the knee earlier than a middle row seat that is longer. Or the center seat belt comes out of the ceiling and fits differently than the side seat where the seat belt comes from behind and may even be adjustable.

While your child is transitioning, measure for each seating position and use a booster in those for which the seat belt does not fit your child properly.

Please also remember, it is best practice for children to be seated in the back seat until they are 13-years-old.

We want to know, did you know the 5-step seat belt fit test prior to reading this post? Share your comments below.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2020 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.

This post was originally published May 2013 and has been updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.  

© Syda_Productions | depositphotos


  1. No, I did not know the 5 step test prior to reading this. My daughter is only 10, but she’s about 4’8″ tall and weighs about 115lbs. I don’t have to worry abut her asking to sit in the front seat yet because her older brother sits there, but he’ll be getting his driver’s license this year and I know she’s going to be asking. I think that it’s best to have this test than to give a standard answer as in age of child. Children grow at different rates so I think it’s best to go by this test or by the child’s weight and height. Although if we went by weight and height my own mother probably wouldn’t pass the test.LOL

    1. LOL! Many adults say that when we post about how tall a child normally is before they properly fit into a seat belt. Age does become a factor in sitting up front (and for short adults) as the increased bone development means the iliac crests in the hip bones are formed and will hold the seat belt as required. See “When can children sit in the front seat?” (This is disappointing for our nearly 12 year old who 5-stepped a couple years ago as he still needs to wait another year to sit in the front seat.)

  2. Thanks for sharing and the additional comments about bone development. I did not know that. My 10, almost 11 year old is almost as tall as me at 5ft and often sits in the front because his two young brothers are in the back in car seats. Makes me think I need a bigger car so he can sit in the back.

  3. my daughter does not pass the 5 step test should we get her a car seat. She is short for a 13 year old 4 10 and 85 pounds? If so which one do you recommend? ( price do not matter )

  4. So if my son meets those 5 questions he does not need booster seat anymore. He is 6 almost 7. He is 50 inches and 65 pounds

    1. At 50″ tall, he probably doesn’t meet all 5 steps unless he’s in a seating position that is really small, has a very narrow seat and a low seat belt. Most children are at least 4’9″ (57″) tall before they can meet all 5 steps in some seating positions. My youngest is 9.25 years old, 53″ tall and 65 pounds. He does not pass the 5 step seat belt fit test even in our most narrow 3rd row seating position.

  5. Well done on this article! I’m a certified child passenger safety tech and we frequently struggle with parents knowing just how important this is. Thank you for putting this out there and answering the questions so very well!

    1. I just printed out the 5 steps to give to everyone I know with kids after losing my 11 y.o niece few months ago from “seat belt syndrome.” I’m a grandmother now and never heard about this we just followed the state guidelines. Although (properly) buckled in the back) my niece was a little short for her age and sustained internal abdominal injuries broke ribs broken neck and head trauma. Idk why at least in Ohio this info isn’t out there and why aren’t seatbelts being made to fit this age group better. I mean they talk about safety so much but belts have been the same forever

      1. I’m so sorry for your and your family’s loss. That is very sad. Unfortunately state laws are often the minimum standard and sometimes do not follow best practice. Really more education should be given. Perhaps the best place for that is with the pediatrician since most children visit at least occasionally. Our previous pediatrician gave handouts that included car seat safety information for that stage at every visit. We had to correct some of it for him but… Our current pediatrician has information in the office but they have never actually handed us anything. This makes parents have to look for it and if they are following law, they probably think they are doing what’s right. Car manufacturers aren’t going to redesign seat belts to fit children because then they wouldn’t fit adults. That’s why booster seats and RideSafer vests are available to help the seat belt fit correctly. We just need the laws to require proper use until the child properly fits the seat belt instead of some random age or weight.

  6. According to this, I (almost 30, 5’3) don’t pass because the shoulder strap digs into my neck too much. What should I do?

    1. I’m guessing you mean in the driver’s seat. Most cars have some adjustment on the seat belt to account for different height drivers. Though that adjustment isn’t always enough for shorter than average women. And if you boosted yourself up to fit the seat belt better, you likely wouldn’t be able to read the peddles so not a good solution. Which means, if you’ve already adjusted the seat belt and adjusted the seat, there isn’t much else to do. Except maybe next time you shop for a car see if you can find one that adjusts enough to fit you better.

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