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The best way to determine when your child is ready to stop sitting in a booster seat and use only a seat belt in a car is to use the 5-Step Test detailed below.
Don't make the switch based solely on height or age. Kids aren't ready to make the go from a booster seat to a seat belt until the lap and shoulder belts fit them properly. That typically won't happen until they're about 10 to 12 years old.
State laws also regulate child car seat usage. To learn what the laws are where you live, mouse over your state in this map from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (scroll down to the “Restraint use” section).
Why the wait?
Because a booster seat protects a child better than a safety belt alone. In the event of a collision, an ill-fitting safety belt, made for an adult, can actually cause injury instead of preventing it.
For instance, if the lap belt rests on your child's tummy (which it's likely to do without a booster), he could suffer stomach, liver, or spleen damage. And if the shoulder belt rests against his neck rather than his chest, he may try to move it under his arm (where it could crack his ribs and damage internal organs) or behind his back (where it offers no protection at all against head, neck, or spinal injuries).
What is the 5-Step Test to see if my child can stop using a booster seat?
SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. created the 5-Step Test to help determine if your child is ready to ride with a safety belt only and if the safety belt fits properly. To do the test, buckle your child into the back seat of your car without a booster seat and consider the following:
- Does she sit all the way back against the automobile seat?
- Do her knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
- Does the lap belt naturally rest below her belly, touching the tops of her thighs?
- Is the shoulder belt centered between her shoulder and neck?
- Can she stay seated like this for the whole trip?
If you answer no to any of these questions, your child still needs a booster seat. That's true even if your child has passed the height and age requirement for booster seats specified by your state law.
If your child outgrows her current booster seat, replace it with one that has higher weight and height limits. Some booster seats accommodate up to 120 pounds. If she has a long torso, look for a booster seat that's designed to redirect the lap portion of the belt from the tummy to the tops of the thighs.
More seat belt travel tips for best protection
- If your child rides in more than one car, test the safety belt fit in each vehicle. You may need to keep a booster in one car, even if he doesn't need it in another.
- Always keep your child in the back seat if he's younger than 13, even if he no longer needs a booster seat.
- Make sure any booster seat you use is installed correctly. Check out these videos on how to install a backless booster and a high-back booster.
- Don't let your child tuck the shoulder belt under his arm or put it behind his back. If you brake suddenly or are involved in a crash, the belt could put pressure on vulnerable parts of his body, and his upper body will be unprotected, which could lead to severe injury.
- Never let anyone share a safety belt. It's not safe because in the event of a crash the two occupants can strike one another, or one can crush the other. Everyone in the car must have his or her own car seat or safety belt.
What if my child doesn't like his booster seat?
Be matter of fact about requiring a booster seat whenever your child rides in a car. No exceptions. If your "big kid" still protests that he's too old to sit in a booster seat, here are some ideas to encourage him:
- Get a new seat. If his booster seat has seen better days, go shopping together and let him help choose a replacement.
- Highlight the positives. Point out that the booster seat makes the safety belt more comfortable. It also allows him to see out the window better.
- Emphasize safety. Tell your child it's your job to keep him safe. Make it clear that while certain things are negotiable during car rides, such as which music to listen to, safety is not.
Does my child need a seat belt adjuster?
When your child is ready to move to a seat belt alone, don't buy a belt-positioning device to make the seat belt more comfortable for her. These add-ons actually make safety belts less effective.
If your child needs something to make the safety belt snug or to keep the shoulder strap off her neck, she needs a booster seat.
What if I have only lap belts in the back seat?
You need both a shoulder belt and a lap belt to protect your child, whether he's in a booster seat or using only a safety belt. If a car has only lap belts:
- Find out if you can get shoulder belts installed.
- In the meantime, keep your child in a forward-facing car seat with a harness and high-enough weight limit for as long as possible, rather than moving him to a booster seat.
- Use a travel vest. To use a vest with only a lap belt, you need to attach a top tether to the vehicle tether anchor. Many older vehicles can have a tether anchor retrofitted. Toyota and Lexus have a tether installation program through SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. For other companies, check with the manufacturer or call SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. for help at 800-745-SAFE.
If none of these options work, consider purchasing another car that has both shoulder and lap belts in the back.
How to choose a car seat (video)