Car booster seats are getting safer, but many still fail to provide proper protection for young children, a national safety research and testing group has found.
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In a new guide for parents, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reviewed the seat belt fit of 72 models available at major retailers or online, assigning a “Best Bet” rating to the 21 boosters that provided a correct fit across the full range of vehicle types. Booster seats that don’t position seatbelts properly can lead to injuries in a crash and lessen the effectiveness of the belt, experts say.
The institute, a nonprofit highway research group funded by automobile insurance companies, gave a “Good Bet” rating to seven other models that would give a correct fit in the majority of vehicles.
“We’ve been rating booster seats for a full three years now and in this latest round we’ve found them to be a lot better than they used to be,” says Anne McCartt, senior vice president for research at the institute, which released the report Wednesday. “There are a lot more good choices for parents now with more boosters on our list of ‘Best Bets.”
Last year only nine boosters out of the 60 reviewed got the “Best Bet” rating, with eight garnering the “Good Bet” grade.
Although boosters have improved overall, eight failed to make the grade because they didn’t position the seat belt correctly. Those on the "Not Recommended" list are: Eddie Bauer Deluxe, Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3-in-1, Evenflo Express, Evenflo Generations 65, Evenflo Sightseer, Harmony Baby Armor, Safety 1st All-in-One, Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite.
Another 36 boosters received marginal marks because they didn’t position seat belts well on enough vehicles. While these boosters may fit some kids in some vehicles, parents can’t assume they’ll work in every car, van or SUV, McCartt says.
“The new report should highlight to parents that they need to be smart consumers,” says Dr. Barbara Gaines, director of trauma and injury prevention at the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. “They shouldn’t be focusing on which has the nicest pattern or the color that matches the rest of the child’s décor, but on the way the booster actually fits in the family vehicle.”
No matter which booster they choose, parents should look closely at diagrams showing how the seat belt should lie across their children’s shoulders and lap, Gaines says.
That advice may come as a surprise to some parents. A common misconception among parents is that the boosters work by simply sitting the child up higher, says McCartt. So the assumption is that any booster that lifts the child up will work. But the real point of the booster is to position the seat belt so that it provides optimal protection. While even a poorly positioned belt can save lives, it can put a child at risk of internal injuries in a crash.
Secure seat belt fit
Shoulder belts should fit across the middle of the joint, not too close to the neck and not too far over. When the shoulder strap is too close to the neck, kids get uncomfortable and will often wriggle out of the belt, McCartt says. When the belt is too far over it will allow too much movement during a car accident.
When it comes to the lap belt, the optimal position is across the thighs. When the belt is positioned higher so that it falls across the abdomen, the child is at risk for damage to the intestines and the spine in a crash, Gaines says.
Another common misconception is that high backed boosters are safer than backless models, McCartt says. “But we have both types on our list of “Best Bets,” she adds. “And we have boosters that are relatively inexpensive on that list.”
The real value of the new report is that it takes the guess work out of choosing a booster seat, says Dr. Lois Lee, an assistant professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School and an attending physician in the emergency department at Children’s Hospital Boston.
“Getting a booster seat is not as intuitive as you might think,” Lee says. “This will make it easier since parents can pick one of the ‘Best Buys’ and not have to figure out whether the booster will work in their car.”
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Still, Lee cautions that parents inspect the fit of the booster and belts since there is a wide range of height in children between the ages of 4 and 8.
Parents worried about the fit of their child’s booster seat can always have it checked, suggests Gaines. “In almost every community there are free car seat fitting stations,” she says. “Some may require an appointment, some allow you to just drive up and get feedback on whether your booster fits right or wrong. Sometimes they can help you make it fit better.”
The best way to find a car-seat fitting station in your community is to type in the name of your community and “car seat fitting” into your web browser, Gaines says. You can also check with the local children’s hospital or your police department.
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