Real world protection of booster-seated children

Real world protection of booster-seated children

During the awesome child safety seminar on Wednesday last week, “Child occupant protection: Latest knowledge and future opportunities”, there were as usual some very interesting presentations. One of them was by my friend and car seat rockstar Lotta Jakobsson at Volvo and her presentation “Real world protection of booster-seated children”.

The presentation has quite a few suggestions and conclusions which are educational and the average parent find surprising. Her advice importantly concern “real world” situations and not how things look during testing. Performance of rear facing seats does not differ much in real life but forward facing seats are another story. Things in real life never look as nice as those Youtube/ADAC/Euro NCAP crash videos where kids are sitting perfectly and a collision from the side occur with the car standing still.

A few interesting points from the presentation:

Rear facing time: In Sweden we recommend rear facing until at least age four, preferably longer. It’s important to stay rear facing as long as possible. Rear facing is hundreds of percent safer even for a five year old.

Boost!!: Most parents have no idea why a booster seat should be used. It’s NOT because of the huge head support, nicely cushioned sides or the extra plastic/styrofoam piece nearest vehicle door to provide “side impact protection”. These might seem to work well in videos but are basically useless in real life. More info further down.

Main reason for using a booster seat, cushion or high back, is to raise the child off vehicle seat to place hip part of the seat belt below pelvis/hip bones. This is the strongest part of a child’s body and where the huge forces should be absorbed. It’s especially important since hip bones of children are smaller and rounder which means there is a larger risk of belt sliding higher and forces being placed in the abdominal area.

Booster cushion and high back booster – similar safety!: There is basically no safety difference between a booster cushion and a high back booster. We see this in real world situations and also in research by Kristy Arbogast. She is another rockstar who also had an interesting presentation during the seminar on support legs. But there are times when a high back booster is preferred.

Why are not high back boosters much safer? At time of collision from the side head of child is usually in a forward position. Mainly due to pre-impact braking by the driver. By the way a great point of why kids need to stay rear facing as long as possible.  Also because kids nowadays sit with their eyes glued to iPhone/iPad. Another reason for poor protection from the side are the huge head supports. Larger head support often mean children are leaning forward for a better view towards the side.

The booster cushion can be a better option for larger children since todays high back boosters unfortunately are much larger and bulkier. Kids therefore sit higher up and far more forward in the car. Kids in a booster cushion sit lower down and further back leaning against vehicle seat. High back boosters are preferred for younger kids who are less mature and the sides of the seat keep kids better in place. If a child 4-7 years must sit forward facing a seat with high back can be a better choice. During longer drives a seat with high back can also be preferred for better position while sleeping.

No harnessed seats!: In Sweden we switch from rear facing to forward facing seat around age four or preferably later. This is usually a seat with high back but a booster cushion can also be used in some situations. In Sweden we strongly recommend against harnessed seats for older children. These are less safe, more expensive, more complicated to install and are overall just a poor option unless your child has special needs.

Kids can’t be compared to race car drivers and the neck forces in harnessed seats are enormous. Outside Sweden many ask about placing younger kids in a forward facing seat. There is no reason to place a child below age four in a forward facing seat. Placing a child below age four in a booster cushion or high back booster seat is also a very poor option since fit will be terrible and child is nowhere near mature enough.

New restrictions on booster cushions: There is unfortunately a poor development under way for certification of booster cushions. These shortly need to be certified for the R129 car seat standard with a higher minimum weight and height. Booster cushions are a great and cheap option to keep kids above age 4 much safer.  Every parents should have a couple of booster cushions in the trunk in case some friends need a ride at some point.

Safety features can be harmful: Todays high back booster cushions have fancy features to improve safety but these can also be harmful and make seats less safe. XP-PAD by Britax is supposed to decrease chest forces. But it can also increase slack dramatically making the seat far less safe. Same with the fourth attachment point between legs of child, called Secure Guard by Britax and also found in seats from BeSafe and Axkid. Will keep hip part of seat belt lower but can also increase slack.  Huge head support is seen as a great safety feature but often make the seats worse. Those who work with seats and hang out at crash test facilities all want head supports to be smaller. But that’s not a great selling point…….

Bulky winter clothing and pretensioners: Bulky winter clothing can affect safety negatively.  Not really a factor in rear facing seats but very important while forward facing.  A thick winter jacket with lots of air can increase slack dramatically and cause huge problems.  Car seats with pretentioners in the seat belt are great for safety.  Parents should not use bulky winter clothing or unbutton jackets so seat belt is snug around body of child.

Size of cushion: When selecting a booster/high back booster length of cushion is important.  If cushion is too long and child smallish it will not be a good fit.  Child will then slide down to feel more comfortable and place back of knees at edge of cushion.  Hip part of the seat belt will then often end up around the abdominals which is very poor for safety.


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