Do Middle Schoolers and Pre-Teens Still Need Booster Seats? Sometimes

Do Middle Schoolers and Pre-Teens Still Need Booster Seats? Sometimes
Your almost-teens might still need boosters, no matter how much they glare at you. Here’s what you need to know to keep them safe.

It’s not easy being a parent today; while studies have shown that mortality among children are at all time lows, watching the news has us more afraid than possibly any other generation in modern history. Drugs, alcohol, sex, guns, bullying, standardized testing, terrorism–the list goes on and on. I try to make the world a bit more manageable by focusing on best practices in car safety and car seat safety for children, which is why you’ll find articles on just about everything related to keeping kids and adults safe in and around cars on The Car Crash Detective.

What are general best practices for children in car seats?

We’ve looked at how infants, toddlers, and preschoolers should sit in cars (i.e., rear-facing, just as in Sweden) and we’ve talked about when kids can switch from rear-facing to forward-facing or boostering (from 5 onward, but later is also fine). On the other end, we’ve looked at when and how teenagers should start driving alone (as little, as late, and with as much training as possible, as in Norway), and in the middle, we’ve considered when kids no longer need booster seats (typically not until at least 10 to 12). Today’s article will touch on that last point in more detail. Specifically, we’ll consider the situations in which middle schoolers and pre-adolescents (i.e., 6th, 7th, and 8th graders, or 10-13 year olds) may or may not need booster seats.

Why don’t most parents consider booster seats for middle schoolers?

In general, middle schoolers, or children between 11 and 13, are almost never found in car seats in the United States and Canada, despite the fact that a number of them might still benefit from having boosters. This typically occurs due to one of two reasons: either parents see their kids as big enough to sit safely without them or children refuse to sit in car seats after a certain age out of a desire to imitate parents, siblings or peers, or out of a fear of being ridiculed by the latter.

The fact that parents typically let kids sit without boosters by middle school isn’t surprising since parents generally place kids in the front seat by 2nd grade, even though this isn’t safe. Nor is it surprising that children resist sitting in car seats when given a choice, as children are notoriously poor decision-makers when it comes to auto safety (as are many adults as evidenced by speeding rates, annual mileages, alcohol consumption, and seat belt compliance). As usual, it’s up to us as adults to learn and enforce best practices, as society will take far too long to catch up in the mean time.

When would a middle schooler need a booster seat?

When it comes to middles schoolers, they do benefit from booster seats when they haven’t yet passed the 5-step test. While the NHTSA recommends kids stay in boosters until they fit seat belts well, which they note typically occurs when kids are around 4 foot 9 inches, or 57 inches, this guideline isn’t always going to be enough. And while plenty of states permit kids to use adult seat belts much earlier (some don’t even have front seat age requirements past the one year rear-facing limit), we can’t look to the government for guidance here, because best practices in car safety and car seat safety are years away from our laws. The 5-step test is a much better guide, as it’s based on…best practices.

As a reminder, here’s what your pre-teen should look like and be able to do 100% of the time without a booster seat. If you don’t see these positions, your middle schooler isn’t yet ready to  use an adult seat belt. While I’ll use the pronoun “she” below, the guide applies equally to boys and girls.

1.) When she’s sitting, her shoulder belt should cross directly over the middle of her shoulder rather than across her neck or on the outer part of her arm.

2.) The lap belt should sit low on her thighs rather than over her waist or above her stomach.

3.) Her bottom should sit at the intersection of the lower and upper vehicle seats; there shouldn’t be a gap between her back and the back of the vehicle seat.

4.) Her knees shouldn’t bend until they are past the bottom seat’s edge, and her feet should rest flat on the floor rather than fully or partially in the air.

5.) She should be able to sit in this position for as long as the vehicle is in motion without moving; she shouldn’t find this position uncomfortable to maintain.

Every one of these factors should be in place before your son or daughter switches to an adult seat belt, and all of them overrule the general height guidelines. It doesn’t mean something is wrong with your child if she doesn’t meet the guidelines yet; it just means she isn’t ready. She will be soon; virtually all typically developing kids are ready to pass the 5-step test by their 13th birthdays–which, not coincidentally, is when kids can sit in the front seat, per the NHTSA.

If my pre-teen needs a car seat, which do you recommend?

Do Middle Schoolers and Pre-Teens Still Need Booster Seats? Sometimes
If you want a booster to take your child all the way through to seat belt eligibility, the Clek Oobr is perhaps the best option on the market.

If your not-quite-teenager doesn’t pass the booster test, you’ll want to buy a booster seat. For older children, any high back or backless booster will work as long as it lifts your child enough for her to pass the 5-step test as described above. A great example of a backless booster is the Clek Olli. It’s discreet and comes in a wide range of colors for picky pre-teens.

Do Middle Schoolers and Pre-Teens Still Need Booster Seats? Sometimes
The Peg Perego Flex 120 is another excellent option for a long-term booster seat.

If you’re looking for a seat for a younger child (one at least 4 years old) that can be used until she no longer needs a booster seat of any kind, you’ll want to start with a high back booster, as they’ll position kids properly even when they’re asleep, which is safer for younger kids.

The three best high back boosters on the market are the Clek Oobr, Maxi-Cosi RodiFix, and Peg Perego Viaggio Flex 120. Of the three, the Oobr has the advantage of being able to split into a backless booster if you’d like that option down the road. However, all three seats will last kids throughout the booster years until they’re ready for adult seat belts.

Remember: the goal here isn’t to annoy your pre-teens, but to keep them safe. Most aren’t going to need car seats at this point, but some will. And that’s okay. Keep being the beacon of best practices; you’ll have rougher waters ahead in a few years, and emphasizing the importance of responsibility now will help shape their decision-making later.

If you find my information on best practices in car and car seat safety helpful, you can do your shopping through this Amazon link. Canadians can  shop here for Canadian purchases. Have a question or want to discuss best practices? Join us in the forums!

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Your Big Car, Truck, or SUV Will Not Protect You in a Highway Crash

If you’re sharing the road with a vehicle like this, it doesn’t matter whether what you’re driving weighs 2,000 or 5,000 pounds. You need to avoid it, or you’re going to die.

One of the most common and harmful myths of auto safety in the US is that large vehicles are necessary for safe driving, and that they provide much more protection than smaller vehicles. I’ve addressed this myth before in articles such as My Prius is safer than your large SUVs and even larger pickup, How small cars make us all safer, and more recently, in A Cruze is as safe as a Suburban and A CR-V is as safe a as a Pilot. Today we’re going to revisit the myth by comparing death rates of some of the latest small cars on the road to those of some of the latest and largest cars, minivans, SUVs, and pickup trucks money can buy. All of the data comes from the most recent IIHS status report with driver death rate data, Volume 52, No. 3.

Small cars with very low driver death rates, or the safest used small cars money can buy

2011-2014 Chevrolet Volt – 7 driver deaths (0-39)

I recently wrote about how the Volt achieved the lowest fatality rate ever for a small car in the IIHS’ driver death rate surveys. The estimate of 7 suggests that if 1 million drivers put our staggeringly high annual mileage of 13,476 on 1 million ’11-’14 Volts, only 7 of those drivers would have died at the end of a full year. That’s as good as it gets for a small car right now; the only cars that have scored better in estimates are a precious few mid-sized and large models. Due to its batteries and internal combustion engine, it weighs a porky 3,781 lbs.

2011-2014 Nissan Leaf  – 8 driver deaths (0-44)

In a statistical dead heat with the Volt is the Nissan Leaf, which achieved a driver death rate of 8, the lowest yet estimated by the IIHS for an electric vehicle and the second lowest fatality estimate ever made for a small car. As noted in that article, due to the overlapping confidence intervals, it’s entirely possible it shares the same true driver death rate with the Volt; it’s even possible that true driver death rate might be zero. Pretty impressive for a car that costs under $10,000 in the used market and will never, ever need gasoline. With its battery pack, it weighs roughly 3,375 lbs.

2011-2014 Mini Cooper Countryman 2WD – 10 driver deaths (0-53)

The Mini Countryman is yet another station-wagon styled small car that matched or bettered a bevy of much heavier and larger vehicles with its driver death rate of 10. The larger sibling of the venerable Mini Cooper (which did not appear on the death rate survey due to low sales), it’s also the first vehicle on this list to feature a fully internal combustion engine. It weighs a svelte 3,208 lbs.

2012-2014 Subaru Impreza 4WD Wagon – 12 driver deaths (3-36)

While the Outback is undoubtedly the most famous Subaru and  by far their most popular wagon, the little Impreza actually equaled it in driver safety with an identical driver death rate of 12. Not bad for a vehicle that costs several thousands less than its flagship mark sibling. And with overlapping confidence intervals, it’s just as safe as not only the Outback, but the Legacy and Forester too. It weighs around 3,241 lbs.

2012-2014 Fiat 500 – 13 driver deaths (0-26)

The tiny Fiat 500 is the smallest car on this list, yet it kept its drivers as safe any of the vehicles already mentioned, and several huge monsters we’ll review in a minute. It weighs a scant 2,533 lbs.

Now that we’ve looked at 5 small and light cars with exceptionally low driver death rates, let’s compare them to 5 cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickup trucks that weigh much more, yet didn’t provide any more protection to their drivers–to hundreds of thousands of them who drove around the United States under the same conditions and on the same roads.

2011-2014 Ford Taurus 2WD – 40 driver deaths (23-60)

Our token large car, the Ford Taurus, was the most popular large car sold in the US during the surveyed years for the driver death rate study. However, although the Taurus weighs roughly 4,224 lbs, it didn’t provide any more protection than vehicles weighing hundreds to thousands of pounds less. Despite the higher driver death rate, we can’t say the Taurus was less safe than any of the aforementioned vehicles, as its confidence intervals overlapped with all of them. What that does allow us to state, though, is that it did not offer any advantage whatsoever, statistically speaking, over any of those vehicles when it came to keeping its drivers alive.

2011-2014 Chevrolet Suburban 1500 4WD – 39 driver deaths (11-67)

I recently profiled the Suburban in a comparison article with the Cruze, where I showed how, despite it being a much larger and heavier vehicle, it didn’t provide any additional driver protection as measured by driver survival rates compared to the Cruze. As a result, it was a perfect candidate for the token large SUV in this article. Despite weighing a hefty 6,551 lbs on the high end, it didn’t protect its drivers any better than vehicles weighing  up to 4,000 pounds less.

2011-2014 Ford F-250 Crew Cab 4WD – 35 driver deaths (22-27)

The 4WD Crew Cab trim of the F-250 will be our token large pickup truck, as it was the most popular sold in the US during the driver death rate survey years. The high sales rate is reflected in its narrow confidence interval. However, despite weighing a formidable 6,940 lbs on the high end, it was no safer than vehicles weighing up to 4,400 pounds less.

How can so many big cars be no safer than tiny ones for my family?

There are a few things to keep in mind to help explain these findings. First of all, it’s essential to remember that the three factors in auto safety involve how we drive and where we drive in addition to what we drive. No matter what you’re driving, it’s only one third of the equation. And there isn’t a vehicle on the road today that can stop you from accelerating into a bridge column while drunk, or switching lanes into the path of a semi-trailer after falling asleep. The roads you choose, the speeds you use, the times you drive, the miles you log, the tires you install (or don’t), the car seats you buckle your children into (hint: do what the Swedes do!)…it all adds up to far more than the vehicles themselves.

Compared to a semi-truck, we’re all driving small, tiny cars, SUVs, minivans, and pickups

Compared to this truck, every passenger vehicle on the road is a tiny car. How and where we drive make far more of a difference than what we drive.
Compared to this truck, every passenger vehicle on the road is a tiny car. How and where we drive make far more of a difference than what we drive.

Beyond all of this, it’s essential to remember that no matter what you drive, if it’s a standard passenger vehicle, it’s massively outweighed by the many large trucks and buses that populate our highways. A semi-trailer can weigh up to 80,000 pounds. A dump truck can weigh more than 60,000 pounds. The roads are filled with these vehicles. It doesn’t matter whether you’re hit by a vehicle that weighs 10x more than yours (e.g., a 70,000 pound truck crashing into a 7,000 Ford Super Duty) or a vehicle that weighs 20x more than yours (e.g., the same 70,000 pound truck crashing into a 3,300 lb Subaru); once the mass differential exceeds around 1.5x and your speeds exceed around 50 mph, you’re probably going to die. And if you increase the speeds to what most people consider highway speeds (e.g., 65-85 mph), you’re going to die in a head-on collision with pretty much anything larger than a motorcycle.

We can’t protect ourselves with size and mass. The solutions lie in changing how and where we drive. Choose safe speeds, follow best practices with car seats,  and choose safe roads, and you can achieve a better family survival rate than that you’d get from choosing any passenger vehicle on this list, or on any other list.

If you find my information on best practices in car and car seat safety helpful, you can do your shopping through this Amazon link. Canadians can  shop here for Canadian purchases. Have a question or want to discuss best practices? Join us in the forums!

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35,000 Americans will die this year on the road. You don't have to be one of them. A car seat and car safety blog to promote best practices for families.