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February 2000  -  Volume 3  -  Issue 2

National Child Passenger Safety Awareness Week:

February 13-19

National Highway Traffic Administration

Does your child ride in the back seat? Anyone who rides loose can hurt those who are buckled up by being thrown against them. People riding without belts or safety seats can be hurled out of the car and seriously hurt. The back seat usually is safer than the front, because head-on crashes are the most common kind. There must be one belt for each person. Buckling two people, even children, into one belt could injure both. Each child safety seat needs a safety belt to.

Infants must ride facing the rear of the car. In this position, the safety seat cushions the head and back. Infants must ride facing the rear of the car, even if they are out of the driver's view in the back seat. Parents should feel just as comfortable in this situation as they do when they put their babies down for a nap and leave the room. If a baby has special health needs that require full-time monitoring, ask another adult to ride with the baby in the back seat and travel alone as little as possible.

Your child should stay in a car safety seat with a full harness until the seat is outgrown usually at about 40 pounds. When a child's shoulders are above the top set of strap slots, it is time for a booster seat. If the shoulder belt should loosen, a strong tug to make it snug again. Booster seats protect the child's upper body with either the shoulder belt or with a shield. The booster also raises the child so the vehicle lap/shoulder belt fits well.

Why use a booster seat instead of a safety belt?

Most 40-pound children are not big enough to fit lap and shoulder belts properly. A belt that rides up on the tummy could cause serious injury. The adult lap and shoulder belt normally does not fit a child until they are about 4'9" tall and weigh approx. 80 lbs. Many young children do not sit still enough or straight enough to keep lap belts low across their thighs. Boosters are comfortable for children because they allow their legs to bend normally. This also reduces slouching, one cause of poor lap belt fit.

There are three kinds of booster seats

  • Boosters without shields, for use only with the vehicle lap/shoulder belt. Because raising the child improves belt fit, these are called belt-positioning boosters. Some have a high back that gives head support for taller children. Some boosters of this type are built into vehicle seats.
  • Boosters with removable shields. Use without the shield to make lap and shoulder belts fit right. Shield boosters are not currently approved for children weighing over 40 pounds. A child who has outgrown their convertible seat, yet weighs less than 40 pounds can be moved into a high-back booster with a harness. Once the child reaches 40 pounds, the harness is removed and the seat is used with the adult lap and shoulder belt as a belt-positioning booster.
  • High-backed boosters, used as belt-positioning boosters. Most have a clip or strap to hold the shoulder belt in place. Some high-backed boosters have removable harnesses (B, on back). This type can be used with the harness for a child under 40 lbs.
  • Children who reach 40 pounds before age 3 may not be mature enough to stay seated properly in a belt-positioning booster. A vest that uses the belt system and a tether strap would be an option in this situation.

How long should the booster be used?

Try the vehicle belts on your child as he or she grows taller. When the child sits comfortably without slouching, with the lap belt low on the hips and the shoulder belt across the shoulder, use the belts without the booster. Lap belt fit is most important. A child is usually ready for the adult lap and shoulder belt when the child can sit with their back against the vehicle seat back cushion with knees bent over the vehicle seat edge with feet on the floor. Do your child's ears come above the top of the vehicle seat back? If so, a high-back booster will improve neck protection. Always follow manufacturer instructions.

Children who have outgrown safety seats are better protected by lap/shoulder belts than by lap belts alone. So if several children are riding in back, and there are shoulder belts there, let the older ones use the shoulder belts. Put the child riding in the car seat in the middle where there is only a lap belt. If no shoulder belt is available, it's much safer for anyone (except small babies who can't sit up) to use just a lap belt than to ride loose. Keep the lap belt low and snug across the thighs. Other options should be pursued, i.e., having shoulder belts installed or using harness/vest devices for children.

How should a lap belt fit?

The lap belt should fit low over a child's upper thighs. Make sure the child sits straight against the seat back. Keep the belt snug. If the lap belt rides up onto the tummy, it could cause serious injuries in a crash.

How can you make a shoulder belt fit better?

The shoulder belt should stay on the shoulder and be close to the child's chest. If you have the kind of shoulder belt that stays loose when it is pulled out, make sure there is no more than one inch of slack. Too much slack will prevent the belt from working well. Teach your child to tug at the shoulder belt to take up excess slack. If the shoulder belt fits so poorly that it goes across the neck or face, raise the child with a belt-positioning booster. NEVER put a shoulder belt under the child's arm or behind the back. Either of these kinds of misuse could cause serious injury in a crash.

Many new cars have airbags for the right front seat. Air bags work with lap/shoulder belts to protect teens and adults. To check if your vehicle has air bags, look for a warning label on the sun visor or the letters "SRS" or "SIR" embossed on the dashboard. The owner's manual will also tell you. An inflating passenger air bag can kill a baby in a rear-facing safety seat. An air bag also can be hazardous for children age 12 and under who ride facing forward. This is especially true if they are not properly buckled up in a safety seat, booster seat, or lap and shoulder belt

In a crash, the air bag inflates very quickly. It would hit a rear-facing safety seat hard enough to kill the baby. Infants must ride in the back seat, facing the rear. Even in the back seat, do not turn your baby to face forward until he or she is about one year of age and weighs at least 20 pounds. Look for a seat that meets the higher rear-facing weight limit for heavier babies not yet one year of age.

If there is no room in back and you have no alternative, a child over age one who is forward facing may have to ride in front. Make sure the child is correctly buckled up for his or her age and size and that the vehicle seat is moved as far back as possible. Fasten the harness snugly, and make sure a child using a lap and shoulder belt does not lean toward the dashboard. Read your vehicle owner's guide about the air bags in your car.


  • One Person - One Belt Never hold a child on your lap because you could crush him in a collision. Even if you are using a safety belt, the child would be torn from your arms in a crash.
  • The cargo area of a station wagon, van, or pickup is a very dangerous place for anyone to ride. Anyone riding in the bed of a pickup truck, even under a canopy, could be thrown out!
  • The back seat is safer than the front. The center belt often works best for a safety seat. Older children should use booster seats with lap/shoulder belts for best protection until about age 7-8. Some booster seats got to 100 lbs.

Warning: Some devices advertised to improve belt fit for older children and adults are not covered by government standards. They may help with shoulder belt comfort but may put too much slack in the shoulder belt or cause the lap belt to ride up. Boosters are a better solution for children who fit in them.


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