Once upon a time, there was a boy named Matthew. He started out quite small. And then he grew. And GREW.
Matthew says “hi”
Matthew is tall. Very, very tall. Far taller than all the other kids in the second grade. In fact, at 4’8″ he is in the 96th percentile for height. In other words, in a group of 100 8 1/2 year olds, he’d be taller than 95 of them.
The Commonwealth of Massachusetts requires that children from birth through 7 years (under 8) be in a properly used child restraint in the car. After the 8th birthday, the law requires all children to wear a seatbelt. As long as he’s buckled into a belt, the law says he is safe. Shall we go for a ride, Matthew?
Fortunately, we know that the law is not enough to keep children safe. NHTSA, Safe Kids, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all recommend that children between 8 and 12 years old continue to use a booster until they fit the belt correctly alone, usually around 4’9″.
In order to fit the belt correctly, the following must *all* be true. (Commonly called the five step test)
1. Shoulder belt firmly in the middle of the shoulder
2. Lapbelt low on the thighs
3. Bum all the way back in the vehicle seat bight
4. Knees bend beyond the edge of the vehicle seat and feet rest on the floor
5. Child can maintain this position 100% of the time without moving
Let’s take a closer look. Matthew is 4’8″, not so far from the magic number of 4’9″. How is that belt fitting him?
1. That shoulder belt isn’t crossing his chest firmly in the middle of his shoulder. It’s on his neck, nearly on his face. Even a very well behaved child is going to get annoyed eventually and push it away. He might even tuck it under his arm or behind his back to be comfortable. We know this leads to brain and spine injuries, because the head travels too far in a crash.
2. That lap belt is high, way too high. There’s a reason it’s called a lap belt, and not a belly belt. The lap belt should rest under the hips, going over the tops of the thighs. It shouldn’t cross the soft belly. In an accident, this belt could cause major crush injuries to his internal organs.
3. He’s uncomfortable. The seat is too big for his legs, so he slouches forwards. Who wants his legs to dangle? Now he’s got a big gap behind him, and the lap belt is pushed up even further.
4. When I tell him sternly to sit all the way back, safely, he does. His knees end up bending before the edge of the seat, and his feet are dangling now. How long do you think he can do that before his feet start to ache and he slides back down again?
What Matthew needs, is a booster seat. Boosters are inexpensive and do not take up much space. They are so simple to use that the average older child can put one in the car and climb in and buckle himself without assistance.
And what do we have now?
Let’s check those problem areas from before:
1. The shoulder belt crosses his shoulder over his chest, firmly in the middle, without touching his neck or coming off the edge of his shoulder.
2. The lap belt is nice and low, under his hips, resting on his thighs.
3. He can sit comfortably back now because the booster is supporting him, and he can’t slouch because the armrests are holding the seatbelt where it’s meant to be. His thighs are supported so he’s not as likely to have achey feet.
Food for thought: If Matthew, who is bigger than 95 of a 100 kids his age, all of whom the commonwealth says DON’T need boosters, and he clearly DOES need a booster, what does that say about all the other 8 year olds?
The law is not enough. It’s a starting place, but following it to the letter won’t protect your child from harm. 4’9″ is the size of a 50th percentile 11 year old, not an 8 year old.
Keep your kids boostered until 4’9″. They are more important than the minimums!