Safety seats sometimes confuse parents

Should kids be in car seat or booster?


Most parents understand the need for child safety seats in the care. But understanding which seat to use and how to use it can be a bit more daunting.

While overall use of child safety seats is increasing, they are not always being used correctly, according to the 2008 Partners for Child Passenger Safety study by the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia.

Safety seat use among restrained children 8 years and younger rose to 80 percent in 2007 from 51 percent eight years earlier. However, only 63 percent of restrained 4- to 8-year-olds in the study were in appropriate seats. The rest were in adult seat belts alone.

Typically, such belts don't begin to fit properly until kids grow to about 4 feet, 9 inches tall, said Kristy Arbogast, director of engineering at CHOP's Center for Injury Research and Prevention.

"More parents than ever now realize that kids need the help of a booster seat to make sure the belt fits properly across the bony parts of their lap and shoulder, rather than across the soft belly or the neck, which are more prone to injury," Arbogast said.

Previous CHOP research shows boosters lower crash injury risk by 59 percent for 4- to 7-year-olds compared with belts alone.

"Unlike child restraints, boosters don't restrain children in crashes," said Insurance Institute for Highway Safety President Adrian Lund. "This is because, unlike child restraints, boosters don't restrain children in crashes. They simply position kids so lap and shoulder belts are in the right place to restrain them."

Laws vary by state

Arbogast attributes the increase in booster use among older kids to education of parents and caregivers, plus state laws requiring older kids to ride in safety seats. Laws in 43 states and the District of Columbia include booster provisions.

However, the laws aren't clear cut when it comes to child safety seats. It really depends on where you live.

The IIHS offers a state-by-state break down of child restraint laws.

But Arbogast and CHOP offers the following suggestions:

  • Children should remain in a rear-facing seat until at least 1 year old and at least 20 pounds
  • A forward-facing seat with a harness comes next and should be used until children weigh more than 40 pounds or until their ears reach the top of the seat
  • Use a booster seat when your child has outgrown the forward-facing seat until he or she is 8 years old or 4 feet, 9-inches tall

As Autotrader.com notes, guidance is also available from local fire and police departments and hospitals, which often run child safety seat clinics designed to show parents how to correctly install the seats.

Keep kids in back

Making sure children take a back seat is also another important step in keeping children safe, reducing the risk of fatal injuries in crashes by about one-third among kids 12 and younger.

While the American Academy of Pediatrics, which provides an online guide to child safety seats, recommends that children younger than 13 ride in the back seats of vehicles, the CHOP study showed that about 30 percent of all 8- to 12-year-olds ride in the front.

"These findings are an alarm bell that parents still haven’t heard the critical safety message (that) old air bag, new air bag, no air bag, kids are safer in a rear seat properly restrained," said Chuck Hurley, executive director of the Air Bag & Seat Belt Safety Campaign of the National Safety Council. "It is particularly important that this message get out to lower-income families of all races whose self-reported behavior places their babies at much greater risk."

LATCH to the rescue

A relatively new development has also made it easier for parents to keep their children safe while traveling.

Since it is estimated that four out of five car seats are not installed correctly, the LATCH system was developed to make it easier to correctly install child safety seats without seat belts.

All new vehicles as well as infant, convertible and forward-facing child safety seats made after Sept. 1, 2002, are equipped with the LATCH, or Lower Anchors and Tethers for Children, system.

Instead of using standard seat belts, LATCH uses two hooks on the base of a child safety seat that attach to lower anchors in the back seat of your car. There is also top tether strap on the car seat that provides further anchoring.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that using LATCH correctly will cut the number of improperly installed child safety seats in half.