Family Matters

Why Parents Who Carpool Tend Not to Use Booster Seats

Most parents carpool, but many don't require their own children — or other kids — to buckle into boosters when transporting other kids.

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Carpooling can help ensure parental sanity, but new research finds that many moms and dads who transport gaggles of kids are forgoing the use of booster seats for children who are required by law to use them.

All children under 4 must be buckled into car seats, and most states have laws mandating the use of booster seats until 8 — but half of parents don’t know the details of their particular state law.

Research published Monday in the journal Pediatrics finds that 25% of parents don’t use boosters for their children ages 4 to 8. And even those who do are far less consistent when other kids are in the car.

Of the 75% of parents who usually use boosters, only half had their children buckle up when they were transporting other kids who didn’t have a booster. Only about 20% of parents would ask another parent transporting their child to use a booster seat in the other parent’s car.

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Parents are probably not just throwing safety precautions to the wind. Rather, the tricky logistics of arranging boosters for all child passengers may hinder compliance. Plus, 20% of parents report that boosters get in the way of using all of a car’s seatbelts, something that can be paramount if you’re transporting a lot of kids.

But peer pressure — from both the perspective of child and adult — could also be at play. Perhaps you, as a parent, are uncomfortable approaching other parents about using a booster seat for your child because you don’t want to inconvenience them. Or maybe they don’t use boosters for their own kids and you don’t want to make them feel bad.

Children, for their part, may fuss about being confined to a booster. “If you have a really cool friend who gets to ride without a booster, your kid might make a big stink about using their booster seat,” says the study’s lead author Michelle Macy, a clinical lecturer of emergency medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a pediatrician at U-M C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital.

Cool factor aside, current state laws are largely inadequate when it comes to protecting children. Legislation focuses on age when it should really focus on height, which is a more accurate gauge of when a child can safely ride booster-free. Tennessee and Wyoming have the nation’s toughest booster laws, specifying that children must use a booster until they turn 9. But even those states’ laws don’t meet the minimum recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP).

Last year, the AAP released guidelines advising children to use boosters until they’re 57 inches tall — the average height of an 11-year-old.

“The laws should be stronger,” says Macy. “Parents often look to the law and assume that’s what’s safest. Laws need to go further if that’s where parents are getting their safety information.”

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As far as function goes, booster seats are pretty low-tech. They raise children to a point at which the regular adult seat belt fits them correctly, with the shoulder belt crossing the middle of the collarbone and the center of the chest; the lap belt should hit on a child’s hipbones. To ride without a booster, children should be able to sit with their bottom adjacent to the seat back and their knees bent over the seat edge.

The next time your child complains that all the cool kids don’t ride in boosters, you can try going all technical on them:

“If those adult seatbelts aren’t hitting at the right point, kids are going to put it under their arm or behind their back and it won’t hit at the right point to protect them from injuries to the head, spine and abdominal organs,” says Macy. “Booster seats ensure the belt hits at the right contact points.”

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