Bye-Bye Booster: What You Should Know About Seat Belts and Older Kids

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I was on the road recently when I spied a couple that appeared to be coming home from the hospital with their new baby. The dad was driving; the mom was in the backseat sitting next the center-positioned infant-safety seat. How did I know they were fresh out of the hospital? They were driving about 10 mph slower than everyone else. I remember that day with both my kids, and in the blink of an eye, I found myself cleaning the garage, wondering if I needed to hold on to my child-safety car seats any longer.

Related: Car Seat Basics Part Three: Beyond the Booster

Kids can move out of car seats when they are 4 feet 9 inches tall and between 8 and 12 years old and buckle up using a normal seat belt, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. They should always use a seat belt and sit in the rear seat for the best protection. Kids who are less than 4 feet 9 inches tall should always use booster seats. Without one, the car’s seat belt may hit the shoulder and neck in the wrong places they buckle up. A seat belt adjuster is not a substitute for a booster seat for kids who aren’t tall enough to safely use an adult seat belt by itself.

My kids, ages 11 and 9, no longer need car seats. It’s weird. I feel like I’m breaking the rules by allowing them to buckle up using the car’s seat belt rather than a car seat or even a backless booster. Like, all they need to do is buckle up using the regular seat belt? It feels so strange that I decided to make sure I wasn’t breaking any laws or missing some important memo about making sure my kids were still safe in the car since they’ve outgrown their child-safety seats. 

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When kids move out of a booster seat to use a seat belt exclusively, it’s important to make sure they’re using the belt correctly. It’s important to make sure the seat belt lies across the shoulder properly and does not lie on the child’s neck or face. The American Academy of Pediatrics provides guidelines for this:

  • A child should be tall enough to sit without slouching with his back against the car seat.
  • The thighs should reach the edge of the seat, and the knees should be naturally bent over the car’s seat with the feet hanging down or flat on the floor.
  • The lap belt should sit snug across the child’s hips — not the belly.
  • The shoulder belt should lie across the child’s chest and shoulder — not the neck or face. It should have a comfortable fit. 

That’s not all. Never allow a kid to tuck the shoulder belt under his arm or behind his neck. This part of the seat belt is important, and using it improperly could have serious consequences in an accident. If the seat belt causes friction on your child’s neck, it means that it is not lying on the shoulder properly. While some belts have built-in adjusters that can be adjusted to suit your child’s height, do not use aftermarket seat belt adjusters. Aftermarket adjusters may not be safe, but adjustable seat belts built into your car work well for helping kids transition from child-safety seats to just using the grown-up seat belt. Skip those aftermarket seat belt strap adjusters, but feel free to use any features or positioners built into your car. The backseat’s center seat is still the safest position, and my kids like it because they can see out the front.

Safety experts agree that kids should ride in the backseat until age 13, and some even advocate children staying back there until they’re of driving age. That’s because the force from deployed front-impact airbags can injure or kill young children. While many vehicles have sensors to turn off the airbag, if the passenger weighs less than 80 pounds, it’s ideal to keep the kids in the rear seats.

But what if your child meets all the criteria and you can’t put off the move to the front seat? Like anywhere else in the vehicle, make sure the seat belt is used properly every time. Also, move the front passenger seat as far away from the airbag as possible, which may reduce injury related to the airbag’s deployment in a collision. I’d also add that this isn’t the time to get too comfortable with your own good driving habits. These kids are going to be driving soon (in another blink of the eye), so be sure you’re still being a good role model.

Going through this transition out of safety seats and into seat belts and (eventually) the front seat is another one of those reminders that kids are growing fast. I’m sure tomorrow I’ll be writing about teen driving tips, but until then, I’ll be following the recommended safety guidelines for child passengers no matter where they sit in the car. photos by Sara Lacey’s Editorial department is your source for automotive news and reviews. In line with’s long-standing ethics policy, editors and reviewers don’t accept gifts or free trips from automakers. The Editorial department is independent of’s advertising, sales and sponsored content departments.

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