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Do booster seats save lives?

By: Lisa Keegan

Date: Thursday, 22. April 2010

Ohio is the most recent US state to implement more stringent booster seat legislation for children aged between 4 and 8 years old. A booster seat is essentially a platform designed to raise a child up high enough so that an adult seat belt fits them appropriately and can therefore be effective in the event of a crash. According to 'An improper fit of an adult safety belt can cause the lap belt to ride up over the stomach and the shoulder belt to cut across the neck, potentially exposing the child to serious abdominal or neck injury'

All 50 US states have laws that require children younger than 4 years old to be secured in child safety seats with harnesses, but not all states require 'booster seats'. Ohio has now joined Wyoming and Tennessee as having the strictest child restraint laws where children up to the age of 8 must be appropriately restrained. The majority of states have laws that apply to children up to 7 years old.

Florida can be said to have the most lax laws in these terms as children in this state only legally have to be restrained up to the age of 3. states that '...using a booster seat with a seat belt instead of a seat belt alone reduces a child's risk of injury in a crash by 45%.' This view is supported by groups such as the American Academy of Pediatrics who were advocates of the recent booster seat legislation in Ohio, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

The support for booster seats is not just coming from safety lobbyists, a poll carried out a few years ago shows that the public also favor such laws 'a 2004 Harris poll found that 84% of Americans support all states having booster seat laws protecting children ages 4 to 8.' Lou Harris, for Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 2004

It seems straightforward, booster seats save children from injury and possible death and therefore their use should be enshrined in law. But is it that simple? The short answer is no. I am not referring to the anti-interventionist argument which is more about politics than safety and is another discussion altogether.

There is a second argument which, while it does not necessarily oppose the use of booster seats, certainly advocates greater research on the subject. At the forefront of this argument is Steven Levitt, co-author of the best-selling book 'freakonomics'. Levitt argues that the child-restraints for children above 2 years of age, in particular booster seats, are no more effective than using the standard adult seat belt for a child. He is not promoting the abandonment of these restraints but he does state the need for further research in this area, and the objective interpretation of resulting data. Having carried out their own, albeit limited, testing, Levitt and his co-author Stephen Dubner found nominally higher head and chest acceleration for the three-year-old dummy in the seatbelts alone than in the car seat, and nearly identical results for the six-year-old dummy in both restraints.

The issue of child safety is naturally a very emotive one and questioning existing safety standards and research tends to put people on the defensive. This attitude may actually act as a barrier to open discussion in this area and could therefore prevent further research and advances in this field. Based on current evidence, and common sense, it seems obvious that booster seats will save lives and prevent serious injury, but we have to look at if and how current designs are achieving this.

The aim of a seatbelt is to restrain a person in a car without compounding the potential for injury with these restraints. If a seatbelt is improperly positioned on a child, or if they slouch in the seat so they can comfortably bend their knees at the edge of the seat, then the potential for injury certainly is increased. The aim of the booster seat is to provide a solution to these problems but it is not as simple as raising the child up a few inches. A child needs to fit comfortably into a booster seat where the lap strap goes across the top of their thighs or pelvis and the shoulder strap sits squarely across the shoulder and not the neck area.

What parents and manufacturers need to realize is that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to car safety for kids. In the case of booster seats, parents need to ensure that the particular seat they use fits the car well and fits the child well. Some 3-in-1 seats that are designed to convert from infant to toddler and then booster seats, may have more difficulty in meeting the needs of the older child. The shoulder belt may be too low and the lap belt too high, thus exposing the child to greater risk of injury in the event of a crash.

We as parents need to take responsibility for car seat safety, for both installing and using the seats, but also ensuring that the safety of these seats is constantly under review. Steven Levitt should be given more credit for flagging these issues and not vilified for calling into question the safety of the child restraint systems currently on the market.

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All Comments (5)

Showing 1 - 5 comments

john ashby,

booster seats are mandatory so what can you do. these are comfortable are practical and does the job of lifting the child up for a good seatbelt fit. I can recommend it;


even I am agree with your point .The person should be defensive while driving .


no thye dont they are a waste of time and money !

Drivers staff,

Good point - a 5-point harness is likely to be a better fit for a child falling into the 'booster seat' category. You are most likely avoiding the risk of improper positioning of the standard seatbelt and generally these 'full' carseats provide better side-impact protection.

The key issue is to ensure that the seat fits well into the car and the child fits well into the seat.

Sarah Hassell,

What about a 5-point harness group 3 car seat? I hear a lot of discussion about them now, but I don't think they are even available in Ireland.

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