The Five Step Test

(Last Updated On: November 12, 2017)

Somehow that little mewling Little to whom you gave birth only yesterday has grown and grown, and now you’re wondering if it’s time to do away with the booster all together.  But how do you know when it’s time?  Parents might be tempted to go by local laws, some of which state that a child as young as six can ride in the seat belt alone. We know that age six, seven and usually eight is far too young, and as long as a tween still fits in a booster (they’re under the height and weight limits, the seatbelt is still on their collarbone, and they have support to the top of their ears from the car), there is no harm at all in leaving them in it.  As with any stage of car seats, rushing a child out is never the goal.

But how do you know when they’re safe without one?  Here are the five steps we look at to see if an older child fits safely in the seat belt alone. A child must meet all five of these in order to fit safely in the seat belt.

1. Their knees bend comfortably at the edge, with their feet flat on the floor.

5 step-feet flat on the floor

2. Their bum is all the way back in the seat.

5 step-knees that bend at the edge

3. The lap belt lies low on the hips, at the top of the thighs.

5 step-lap belt low

4. The shoulder belt crosses on the collarbone.

5 step-shoulder belt on collar bone

5. The tween/teen can stay seated like this for the entire ride.  Even if they smirk.

5 step-can sit properly the whole ride


Why are all five of these steps required?  Let’s break them down.


If a child’s feet do not reach the floor and their knees don’t bend at the edge, they will slump forward.  It’s uncomfortable to have a seat edge in the back of your calves.  If they slump, the seatbelt will be on their soft abdomen, above their hip bones.  In a crash, this can result in seat belt syndrome, a serious injury to internal organs that occurs when the lap portion of the belt basically doesn’t stop until it hits the spine in the back.  If they slump the shoulder belt may not be in the correct position anymore either.  If it’s too high it may be uncomfortable for the child and they will put it behind their back or under their arm, neither of which protects their upper body.

Most children need a booster seat well into their tween years, and some into their early teen years.  This comes as a surprise to most parents, who remember riding with nothing after they were six or seven, or maybe never sat in a seat at all.  However, all health and safety organizations worldwide recommend that children use a booster seat of some sort until their bodies are basically adult sized. When a person is big enough, a seat belt does an excellent job of protecting her in a crash. When your tween is not yet big enough, the seat belt works against her, causing injuries instead of preventing them.

When a tween does outgrow their booster and passes the five step test, they should still remain in the backseat until their 13th birthday.  While not law in all states, it is the national recommendation.

Keep in mind that backseats have very different shapes. Your tween may pass the five step test with ease in your car, but in another car with a very deep backseat they must continue to use a booster for another year or more.

Kids nowadays spend longer in restraints than most parents expect. Remember, when in doubt, max it out. They aren’t little forever. There’s no rush to move them out of a restraint. The five step test is a guide for when kids can start riding without a booster; not when they must be out of one.