Booster Seats vs. Harness Seats: A Safety Guide for Parents
By Adam J. Langino, Esq.
Motor vehicle injuries are a leading cause of death among children in the United States.1 In 2014, 603 children ages 12 years and younger died as occupants in motor vehicle crashes, and more than 121,350 were injured.2 However, using age and size-appropriate car seats, booster seats, and seat belts reduces the risk of severe and fatal injuries to children.3,4
Before children are large enough to be placed into booster seats, they are typically restrained in forward-facing restraint systems, referred to as “harness seats.”5 Nearly all U.S. sold harness seats incorporate a five-point harness with straps that secure at the shoulders, across the upper thighs, and between the child’s legs. Most children graduate to booster seats, which merely elevate a child so that a vehicle’s integrated lap and shoulder belt will fit safely and appropriately.6
In the U.S., The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is the federal agency responsible for reducing deaths, injuries, and the economic losses associated with crashes by setting and enforcing safety performance standards for motor vehicles and motor vehicle equipment like car and booster seats.7 The American Academy of Pediatrics and NHTSA recommend as a best practice that children between the ages of four and seven be kept in a forward-facing car seat until they reach the top height or weight limit allowed by the specific car seat manufacturer. Only once a child outgrows a forward-facing car seat is a child ready to be put into a booster seat, which is only meant to help an adult seat belt fit better.8 Despite the grave safety consequences, many booster seat corporations have marketed their products as equally safe and appropriate as harness seats for smaller children weighing as little as 30 pounds and as young as three. This paper discusses the risks of premature graduation to booster seats, which U.S. booster seat companies have promoted since the early 2000s.
Booster seats vs. Harness seats
A “booster seat” is a seat used to elevate a child so that a vehicle’s integrated lap and shoulder belt will fit a child more appropriately. A booster seat is considered the last step before transitioning a child to adult lap and shoulder belt use. Before being placed in a booster seat, a child is typically buckled into a forward-facing child restraint system. Practically all forward-facing child restraint systems incorporate a five-point harness with straps that secure at the shoulders, across the upper thighs, and between the passenger’s legs.9 Forward-facing child restraint systems are attached to a motor vehicle through an upper tether and internal latches or the vehicle’s lap and shoulder belt system.
Booster seats gained popularity in the United States after NHTSA required automakers to incorporate outboard rear passenger lap/shoulder combination seat belts in their vehicles. Before introducing booster seats, many children were placed in lap/shoulder combination belts that did not fit them. Therefore, the booster seat helped prevent injuries in children that were too large for forward-facing child restraint systems but too small to be placed in a combination lap/shoulder belt system. Studies have shown that children seated in a booster seat are 45% less likely to be injured in a crash than children using a combination lap/shoulder belt alone.10
While a booster seat provides a safety advantage over combination shoulder/lap belt use, forward-facing child restraint systems are generally considered the better option for smaller children who have not outgrown their usefulness. Unlike booster seats, forward-facing child restraint systems are affixed to a motor vehicle, preventing the seat’s forward movement in a crash. Further, the five-point restraint makes it much less likely that a child will be ejected and eliminates the chance that the motor vehicle’s shoulder belt will impact the child’s neck or the lap belt will harm the child’s abdomen. Using shoulder and crotch straps rather than a seat belt to secure the child, harness seats also reduce injury by spreading crash forces over a wider area of a child’s body.11 Unlike booster seats, harness seats’ crotch straps help keep a child from sliding under the lap belt during an incident, particularly younger children whose pelvic bones are still developing the bony ridges that help anchor them to their seat.12 As stated by the American Academy of Pediatrics, “[t]here is a safety advantage for young children to remain in a [child restraint system] with a harness for as long as possible before transitioning to booster seats.”13
For those reasons and others, the leading authorities on child safety seats are uniform that a booster seat should only be used when a child exceeds the upper weight limits of an available forward-facing child restraint system. For instance, NHTSA recommends that a child be kept in a forward-facing child restraint system until they reach the top height or weight limit the manufacturer allows.14 The American Academy of Pediatrics agrees that the “best practice” is to keep children in forward-facing child restraint systems for as long as possible and that children should only be placed in a booster seat when they have outgrown their child restraint system.15 For many years, forward-facing child restraint systems accommodated children up to forty pounds, but in the past decade, safety advancements have allowed many forward-facing child restraint systems for children upwards of 65 to 80 pounds.
Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213
Corporations that market booster seats to smaller children justify their decision by arguing that booster seats are equally safe as harness seats when appropriately used. These corporations say that both types of seats pass Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 213 (“FMVSS 213”) testing and are equally safe. However, compliance with FMSS 213 does not preclude a claim for damages if a child passenger is injured because it merely provides the minimum safety a manufacturer much achieve.16
FMVSS 213 is an outdated standard. Many design improvements to child safety seats have been made since NHTSA first adopted this standard in 1971. In 1981, dynamic safety testing standards were added for harnessed child restraint systems. Yet, despite advancements in child seat technology, those standards have remained essentially unchanged. Booster seats were not added to FMVSS 213 until 1994. Unbeknownst to parents, booster seats are tested to the same essentially unchanged 1981 standards initially designed for harnessed child restraint systems. Even worse, no specific benchmark in FMVSS 213 tests the design intent of a booster to, for example, ensure that a vehicle’s lap belt and shoulder belt are in the correct position in a collision.17
Despite the clear recommendations from the leading authorities that children remain in forward-facing child restraint systems for as long as possible, some child seat manufacturers, to capture a larger market, advertise booster seats as safe for smaller children, in some instances for toddlers as young as 1-year-old or that weigh as little as thirty pounds.
The same companies that advertise booster seats as safe for smaller children in the United States are precluded from doing so in countries with more stringent safety requirements, such as Canada. Arguably, even some states, such as Alabama, Connecticut, Ohio, Oregon, and New Jersey, mandate that child restraint systems be used for smaller children and make it illegal to use booster seats for kids that weigh less than 40 pounds.18 The push by some booster seat companies to invite parents to prematurely graduate smaller children to their products has created a safety gap wherein those smaller children are at risk of ejection in car crashes and suffer catastrophic injuries.
Many booster seat companies now advertise their seats as “side-impact tested,” but many parents are unaware that there was no federal side-impact safety standard until recently. For years, corporations were merely using their internal testing criteria to test their seats. These corporations give passing grades to tests where test dummies are pushed outside the protective boundaries of a booster seat’s “side-impact protection” and found in potentially dangerous scenarios.20
In 2014, NHTSA proposed its first side-impact test standards for car seats. Under the proposal, Hybrid III dummies would be tested in “T-bone” crashes with impacts upward of 30 mph. But due to booster seat corporate lobbying efforts, that proposal never passed.
It took until June 2022 for the U.S. DOT to implement side impact testing requirements. "To meet the new test requirements, test procedures must include child specific ATDs such as the Q3s and/or CRABI. The side impact test must replicate a 30-mph collision, or T-bone accident, for compliance."22
Child seat manufacturers must comply with these new testing requirements by 2025.
Ultimately, parents should take caution in prematurely graduating their children to booster seats, despite how booster seat corporations market their products. It is best for parents to follow the recommendations of the American Academy of Pediatrics' Best Practice Recommendations:21
All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat as long as possible until they reach the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.
All children who have outgrown the rear-facing weight or height limit for their car safety seat should use a forward-facing car safety seat with a harness for as long as possible, up to the highest weight or height allowed by the seat's manufacturer.
All children whose weight or height is above the forward-facing limit for their car safety seat should use a belt-positioning booster seat until the vehicle lap and shoulder seat belt fits properly, typically when they have reached 4 feet 9 inches in height and are between 8 and 12 years of age.
When children are old enough and large enough to use the vehicle seat belt alone, they should always use lap and shoulder seat belts for optimal protection.
All children younger than 13 years should be restrained in the rear seats of vehicles for optimal protection.
I hope you find the above helpful in deciding when a booster seat is a right choice for your child. If the unthinkable happens and your child is injured, please feel free to reach out. I am licensed to practice law in Florida and North Carolina and co-counsel claims in other states. If you would like to learn more about me or my practice, click here. If you want to request a free consultation, click here. As always, stay safe and stay well.
1 CDC. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System [online]. National Center for Injury Prevention and Control, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (producer). [2016 Aug 16].
2 National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Traffic safety facts, 2014 data: occupant protection. Washington, DC: US Department of Transportation, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration; 2016. Available at http://www-nrd.nhtsa.dot.gov/Pubs/812262.pdf.
3 Durbin, D. R. (2011). Technical report—Child passenger safety. Pediatrics, 127(4). Advance online publication. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0215.
4 Arbogast KB, Jermakian JS, Kallan MJ, Durbin DR. Effectiveness of belt-positioning booster seats: an updated assessment. Pediatrics 2009;124;1281–6.
5 See 49 C.F.R. §571.213 S4 (2017)
6 See id.
7 NHTSA Who we Are and What We Do. (2016) Retrieved on September 12, 2016 from http://www.nhtsa.gov/About+NHTSA/Who+We+Are+and+What+We+Do
8 Car Seat Recommendations for Children. (2016). Retrieved September 12, 2016 from http://www.safercar.gov/parents/CarSeats/Right-Seat-Age-And-Size-Recommendations.htm?view=full
9 NHTSA Standardized Child Passenger Safety Training Program, 2001.
10 Safety Tips. (2016). Retrieved September 12, 2016, from http://www.safekids.org/safetytips/field_age/little-kids-1%E2%80%934-years/field_risks/car-seat
11 Nichole L Hodges 7 Gary A. Smith, Car Safety, 35 Pediatrics in Rev. 155, 157 (2014).
12 Brenda J. Baker, et. al., The Osteology of Infants and Children 91 (2005)
13 Durbin, D. R. (2011). Technical report—Child passenger safety. Pediatrics, 127(4). Advance online publication. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0215.
14 NHTSA, B. (n.d.). Car Seat Recommendations for Children. Retrieved September 12, 2016, from http://www.safercar.gov/parents/CarSeats/Right-Seat-Age-And-Size-Recommendations.htm?view=full
15 Durbin, D. R. (2011). Technical report—Child passenger safety. Pediatrics, 127(4). Advance online publication. doi:10.1542/peds.2011-0215.
16 Rogers v. Cosco, Inc., 737 N.E. 2d 1158, 1163 (Ind. Ct. App. 2000), disapproved of by Schultz v. Ford Motor Co., 857 N.E. 2d 977 (Ind. 2006).
17 Ltr. From Ins. Institute for Highway Safety to Nat’l Highway Traffic Safety Admin., Request for Comments, Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (Oct. 31, 2005), https://www.iihs.org/media/8ef5dfbc-5535-4c62-99f5-bb47cf99b7bb/AWWscg/
18 Governors Highway Safety Association Child Passenger Safety Law. (2016). Retrieved 9/12/2016, from http://www.ghsa.org/html/stateinfo/laws/childsafety_laws.html
20 See 49 C.F.R. §571.213 S5 (2017) 20 Daniela Porat, Patricia Callahan. “Evenflo, Maker of the ‘Big Kid’ Booster Seat, Put Profits over Child Safety.” ProPublica, 6 Feb. 2020, https://www.propublica.org/article/evenflo-maker-of-the-big-kid-booster-seat-put-profits-over-child-safety.
22 “NHTSA FMVSS 213 Side Impact Crash Test Rule Update.” Calspan, 19 July 2022, http://bit.ly/3XIJw0m