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Are Backless Booster Seats Putting Our Kids at Risk?

A new car seat campaign out of Great Britain had me re-thinking the back seat of my car.

My older daughter turned 7 last week and my younger daughter turns 4 later this month. In anticipation of their advancing ages, I evaluated their car seats not long ago, did some research, and moved the little one out of her car seat and into a high-back booster. For my big one, I moved her out of her high-back booster and into a backless model.

Initially I looked around for Britax car seats. While they’re generally pricier than other brands, car-seat safety is something I’ll splurge on if at all possible. However, I couldn’t locate any Britax backless booster seats, so I settled for another brand. It turns out, there’s a reason there were none to be found.

A recent public safety campaign out of the United Kingdom is urging parents to “bin the booster” (or, as we say here in the U.S.: throw it away). Leading the way is Britax, which released a video showing two crash-test dummies in the back seat: one in a high-back booster and the other situated in a backless one. Upon impact, the dummy in the backless booster slips out of the seat belt and bangs its head into the side of the car, whereas the one on the high-back booster remains relatively secure.

SafeCar.gov doesn’t warn against backless boosters, although it does caution “a backless booster seat is designed to boost the child’s height so the seat belt fits properly. It does not provide head and neck support. It is ideal for vehicles that have head rests.” However, the Bin the Booster campaign calls models without the back “inadequate” because of the lack of protective sides and seat belt guides.

Consumer Reports agrees that high-back boosters are the safest bet, as “a booster seat’s most important job is to properly position a vehicle seat belt across a child’s best, shoulder, and hips.” Backless boosters, they said, “do a decent job of positioning the lap belt on a child’s hips. But in vehicles where the upper belt anchors don’t fall exactly in line with the child’s shoulder, backless boosters are less likely to provide a good fit.”

While some backless boosters come with a belt-positioning clip, Consumer Reports found they don’t function optimally in every situation. Ultimately, though, it would seem as if backless boosters are OK as long as headrests are present and they’re tall enough to protect the child’s head.

I can’t say that the new campaign has given me pause about my 7-year-old’s new backless booster. She’s tall and the head rest in the back seat fits her properly. I like the idea of having the wings of a high-back booster protecting her in the event of a side-impact crash. Then again, I also like the idea of keeping her tethered to me all day and night so I can also assure she doesn’t get run over while crossing the street, eaten by a bear in our back yard, or choke on food when she snacks in my absence.

At some point, I need to trust that products on the market deemed safe will do their intended job. Plus, given that backless boosters “are still much safer than booster at all,” I feel comfortable continuing to move forward with the new system we have in our back seat.

Consumer Reports has a 6-step test for parents to decide whether their child is ready to sit in the back seat without a booster:

  • Does your child sit all the way back against the vehicle seat?
  • Do your child’s knees bend comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
  • Does the vehicle belt cross your child’s shoulder evenly between the neck and arm?
  • Is the lap belt as low on the abdomen as possible, near the top of the thighs?
  • Can your child stay comfortably seated like this for the whole trip?
  • Does the belt stay in place when the child moves?

If all your answers are yes, they say your child is ready to sit in a car without a booster seat.

 

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