As summer winds down, kids will soon return to school, resuming their hectic schedules and extra-curricular activities. For many families, dealing with the logistics of an active child means sharing transportation duties in a carpool. But not every parent adheres to safe practices when it comes to strapping young children into safety or booster seats, and that can put a child in danger. Likewise, many adults are content to buckle a child in an adult three-point belt before the kids are large enough.
Some states have laws governing booster seat use, requiring boosters for children of certain weights and ages, with some up to age 8. Consumer Reports and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) consider this to be a minimum guideline, as children grow at different rates. Even at age 8 many are not large enough for an adult belt to fit them appropriately. Proper fit varies with every child and every car.
See our car seat buying advice and ratings.
A properly sized booster seat positions the shoulder portion of the vehicle's safety belt mid-way between the edge of the child's shoulder and neck, and the lap part of the belt low and flat across the upper thighs and hip, and not across the abdomen. This allows the belt to be placed over the stronger parts of a child's body, "belt to bone," not the softer tissue that can be seriously injured in a crash. How can you tell if your kid is big enough to graduate out of a booster seat? Ask the following questions. If the answer to any of them is "no," your child still needs a booster:
Does your child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
Do your child's knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
Does the vehicle belt cross your child's shoulder evenly between the neck and arm?
Is the lap belt as low on the abdomen as possible, near the top of the thighs?
Can your child stay comfortably seated like this for the whole trip?
Does the belt stay in place when the child moves?
Despite the benefits of boosters, many parents ignore them when carpooling. A recent study published in the American Academy of Pediatrics found that two-thirds of parents carpool. However, among parents who use a safety seat, only half have their child use one when riding with friends and one in five do not always ask other drivers to use a booster. (Check the booster laws in your state to find out the requirements governing child passenger restraint use.)
Once a child has outgrown the need for a booster seat, continue to keep them in the backseat until they are 13 years old, where they are best protected and away from the front airbags.
At carpool time, make sure all children are in a proper restraint. Always provide the appropriate seat for another parent or caregiver to use if they're transporting your child and make sure they know how to install it properly. Only agree to transport children whose parents do the same. Also, never have more kids in the car than can be safely restrained.
More tips from NHTSA for carpooling safely:
Children should be properly restrained at all times.
Be sure children understand that their safety needs and rules transfer from vehicle to vehicle.
Adults need to buckle up, too—children do as adults do. Set a good example.
Only one seat belt or child restraint per child—no sharing!
All children under age 13 should ride properly restrained in a rear seating position of the vehicle.
Explain to older children why they must ride in boosters even if their friends don't. For example, the seat belt doesn't fit yet, or riding in a booster allows you to see better out of the window.
Designate routine drivers that are currently licensed and insured; no substitute drivers unless previously approved.
Keep an roster with contact and emergency information for each child.
Ultimately, err on the side of caution to keep the kids safe. Even if that means choosing to pass on using a carpool.