When traveling in the car with our children, not only do we want to be legal, we want to be safe. Laws are for our safety, but sometimes the laws do not always correlate with best practices for child safety.
As I’ve said before, child restraint safety laws differ from state to state and can be confusing to sort out. The same is true for seat belt laws. In some states, a child as young as six years old is permitted to ride with just a seat belt.
It’s always important to consult the laws in your state and the states you may be traveling through, but understanding what experts say about the safest way to ride in the car could save children’s lives.
If your child has been contentedly riding in a high back booster but is beginning to wonder when they can graduate to being a “big kid” and ride with just a seat belt, here are five questions to ask yourself (and your child).
Five-Step Test to Determine if Your Child is Ready for a Seat Belt
1. Can your child sit with the lower back against the back of the vehicle seat?
2. Do your child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the seat?
3. Does the shoulder belt rest between the shoulder and neck?
4. Does the lap belt sit on your child’s thighs?
5. Can your child sit like this for the whole ride without slouching?
If you can answer yes to ALL of these questions, your child is ready to ride in the back seat with a seat belt. If you cannot answer yes to all of them, your child still needs to be in a belt positioning booster.
Perhaps your high back booster has the option to convert to a backless booster. This provides the perfect next step for a child that is anxious to be a big kid because it is less conspicuous while keeping the child safe. If your high back booster does not convert, here are two affordable backless boosters:
Diono Solana Backless Booster Seat $39.99
• IIHS Best Bet rating
• LATCH connectors to keep it secured when not in use
• Longer seat bottom for leg support and comfort
• Thick foam for additional comfort
• Retractable cup holders
Evenflo Amp Performance No Back Booster Seat $39.99
• IIHS Best Bet rating
• Tall armrests for easing buckling
• Comfortable contoured padding
• Elastic cup holders
What might be confusing about the seat belt laws is evaluating the age, height, and weight requirements for legally riding with only a seat belt. When you ask yourself the five questions listed above, you take the guess work out of it and the answer becomes obvious.
According to experts (such as carseatlady.com, carseat.org, carseatblog.com) most kids need to be in a booster until age 10-12. Additionally, it is safest for children to ride in the back seat until age 13.
Parenting has many difficult decisions to make on a daily basis. How to best to keep your child safe shouldn’t be one of them.
Consult your state laws, reference the instruction manual for your car seat, understand best practices, and endeavor to keep your child in the highest level of restraint for as long as possible.
Annie Wiesman is the co-author of “Education Begins at Birth: A Parent’s Guide to Preparing Infants, Toddlers, and Preschoolers for Kindergarten.” She is a former kindergarten teacher turned stay-at-home mom who enjoys traveling, hiking in the mountains, and creating memories together with her husband and little girl.