Some booster seats, such as the one shown on the left, ... Some booster seats, such as the one shown on the left, do not allow the seat belt to be positioned properly on children (IIHS).

On Wednesday, Sept. 8, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety announced its seat belt “fit test” ratings of 72 models of children’s booster seats, and the results showed a big improvement over last year’s ratings.

These “fit tests” rank the boosters based on how well-positioned a vehicle’s seat belts are on the child’s body when the booster is being used. This is crucial because the better the booster seat fits, the more effective it is in protecting the child from injury in the event of a crash.

IIHS does not, in fact, conduct crash tests as the purpose of its tests is strictly focused on determining belt positioning and fit.

Manufacturers of boosters conduct crash tests, but those simulations do not tell parents how well-positioned the seat belts are on their child’s body once they’re fastened into the car.

In the new IIHS booster evaluations, 21 booster models are deemed “Best Bets,” and seven are “Good Bets,” meaning they will correctly position the vehicle’s seat belts across the body of the average booster-age child in most vehicles. Eight of the seats tested were rated as “Not Recommended,” and another 36 booster seats were given a middling rating – meaning they may work well in some vehicles, but not in others.

“Booster-age kids” are defined as children between the ages of four and eight.

Improved Results

These results mark a significant uptick from last year, when only nine booster seats were given the “Best Bets” seal and only six were “Good Bets.” But despite the improvement, most belt-positioning boosters still do not offer a consistently good fit in all vehicles.

Some of the boosters that have been given “Best Bet” ratings both this year and last year are ones made by Britax, Clek, Combi, Dorel, Evenflo and Recaro. Harmony Juvenile Products has five different models that made the Best Bet list, including one, the Harmony Secure Comfort Deluxe Backless, that was not recommended last year. New to the “Best Bet” list are seats made by Chicco, Cybex, Graco, and The First Years.

“I think these improved results are a sign that the manufacturers of these booster seats are paying attention to our ratings, and making changes accordingly, so that the design of these boosters are getting better,” says Anne McCartt, IIHS senior vice president for research.

“Many of the manufacturers have visited our research center and observed our testing procedures, and we’ve had many conversations with several of them, and they’ve incorporated our findings into their new designs.”

Michael Noah, senior vice president of the aforementioned Harmony Juvenile Products, concurs.

“IIHS uses an interesting standardized approach in their testing, which helps to compare one seat to another. Using the methodology they outlined, we took that into consideration when designing our new car seats,” says Noah. “We would take into account any positive recommendations when it comes to safety.”

No Federal Standards

The IIHS is the only organization that conducts the belt-fit tests for boosters. This is the third year the group has conducted the tests.

The Institute performs these tests because there is no government standard dictating how boosters should position safety belts, says Russ Rader, IIHS spokesman. If not for these IIHS tests, parents would have little to go on when trying to determine if the booster they’re using -- or the one they want to buy -- is going to do a good job of making sure that the seat belts fit properly, he says.

Plus, there’s a hodgepodge of state laws requiring boosters. Only 27 states have laws that require booster seats for kids up to age eight, even though research shows boosters reduce the risk of injury to kids aged four-to-eight years old by up to 45 percent, compared to kids restrained by belts alone, according to the IIHS.

In its tests, IIHS uses a crash test dummy that represents a child the size of an average six-year-old. The tests measure how three-point lap-and-shoulder belts fit the dummy in each of the boosters, under four different seat-belt configurations in a wide variety of vehicle types, explains McCartt. A booster’s overall rating is based on the range of scores for each measurement.

McCartt thinks the federal government should adopt a national standard and conduct the kinds of tests that IIHS is conducting. “I think that what we’re doing in this area is important, and it’s a missing piece” in terms of the government’s safety testing. “Because, parents obviously want to keep their kids safe.”

Different Kinds of Boosters

Boosters come in two primary styles, highback and backless. Some highbacks are dual-use. Removing the back converts them to backless. These dual-use boosters get two ratings, one for each mode, because the belt fit can differ if it used in the backless mode, according to the IIHS study.
Highbacks have built-in guides to route shoulder and lap belts, and can offer some support for the head. Backless models have lap belt guides, although parents may need to use a plastic clip to properly position the shoulder belts in many vehicles, advises the IIHS.

Not all manufacturers provide clips. When they do, the clips don’t always ensure a good fit, says McCartt.

Twelve of the highbacks are combination seats that can be used as front-facing restraints for toddlers and then again as boosters as children grow. In booster mode, parents remove the built-in harness and use vehicle lap/shoulder belts to restrain kids.

Don’t Buy These

The eight booster seats on the IIHS “not recommended” list include the following: Eddie Bauer Deluxe (highback only), Eddie Bauer Deluxe 3-in-2 (highback only), Evenflo Express (highback only), Evenflo Generations 65 (highback only), Evenflo Sightseer (highback only), Harmony Baby Armor w/clip (dual mode, backless), Safety 1st All-in-One (highback only), Safety 1st Alpha Omega Elite (highback only). The IIHS recommends that if you do own one of these seats, do not throw it out, as any booster seat is better than none at all. However, it encourages parents to check the belt fit, and replace the seat if it is not fitting their child correctly.

Regarding those 36 seats that fell into the “May Work Well in Some Cars, but Not In Others” category: Unlike seats rated “Best Bets” or “Good Bets,” consumers should not assume that boosters in this in-between group will work in every family vehicle, warns McCartt. “Some may be fine, but parents should test them first, in their own vehicle, to see if the lap and shoulder belts fit their kids correctly.

“Shoulder belts should fit snugly across the center of the shoulder, and the lap belt should lie flat across the top of the child’s thighs,” she says. If the lap belt rides up high on the child’s stomach -- or the shoulder belt either falls off the shoulder or rubs against a child’s neck. – that’s a bad fit, she says.

McCartt recommends that parents keep looking until they find a booster that positions the belts properly in their own vehicle. “Most stores will let you take the booster out to your car in the parking lot, and sit your child in it, to see how the belts fit,” she says.

See the complete list:

This year’s list of “Best Bets”

List of “Good Bets”

List of “Not Recommended”

Those that, according to IIHS, may work well in some vehicles, but not others

Top Safety Picks 2010 from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
Buick LaCrosse
Ford Taurus
Hyundai Genesis (built after 1/2010)
Lincoln MKS
Mercedes E class (built after 1/2010)
Volvo S80

Honda Civic (4-door (except Si) with optional ESC)
Kia Forte (built after 10/2009)
Kia Soul
Nissan Cube
Scion xB
Subaru Impreza (except WRX)
Toyota Corolla
VW Golf (4-door)

Audi A3
Chevrolet Malibu (built after 11/2009)
Chrysler Sebring (4-door w/optional ESC)
Dodge Avenger (with optional ESC)
Hyundai Sonata (2011 models)
Mercedes C class
Subaru Legacy
Subaru Outback
Volkswagen Jetta (sedan)
Volkswagen Passat (sedan)
Volvo C30 (2010-11 models)
Dodge Journey
Subaru Tribeca
Volvo XC60
Volvo XC90

Honda Element
Jeep Patriot (w/optional side torso airbags)
Subaru Forester
Volkswagen Tiguan

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