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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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Is 4WD Really Safer than 2WD? Not Per IIHS Driver Death Rates

4WD doesn't offer any survival advantages whatsoever over 2WD when it comes to the all-important goal of keeping your family alive between Point A and Point B. Focus on how and where you drive instead.
4WD doesn’t offer any survival advantages whatsoever over 2WD when it comes to the all-important goal of keeping your family alive between Point A and Point B. Focus on how and where you drive instead.

One of the most persistent myths about driving in the United States is that four-wheel drive vehicles (4WD) are safer than two-wheel drive (2WD) equivalents. It doesn’t matter whether the vehicles involved are SUVs, crossovers, cars, minivans, pickup trucks, or station wagons–if they’re 4WD, they’ve got to be safer, because four powered wheels means more control, which ultimately means a safer way of getting your loved ones home, right?

Not right.

As with many other elements of best practices, what’s commonly done isn’t necessarily what’s safest. Today we’re going to look at IIHS driver death rate data and review how, in the majority of cases, having 4WD in a vehicle doesn’t make it any more likely to keep you alive than using the same vehicle (or even the same kind of vehicle) in 2WD. The goal here isn’t to make you give up your 4WD SUV; it’s simply to show that it’s not inherently safer than its 2WD equivalent, and that it doesn’t give you any leeway whatsoever with respect to the other two pillars of driving safetyhow you drive and where you drive.

Do 4WD SUVs/cars/minivans/pickup trucks have lower driver fatality rates than 2WD vehicles? If not, why not?

No, there isn’t a significant difference in driver death rates between 4WD and 2WD vehicles; this has been shown for years in IIHS driver death rate studies, although the IIHS once erroneously thought that 4WD was safer (see Status Report Volume 46, No. 5, when they split death rate reports by vehicle drive type). They realized their error by the following death-rate-focused status report (Vol. 50, No. 1) and got rid of what was a meaningless way of dividing the data. Let’s look at the most recent survey, Volume 52, No. 3. What follows are various models of minivans, SUVs, cars, and pickup trucks where driver death rate data was available for both 4WD and 2WD trims, as well as confidence intervals in parentheses.

2011-14 Toyota Sienna
4WD
– 10 (1-37), 2WD – 9 (2-16).

I wrote specifically about the Sienna when comparing it to the Odyssey here. The 4WD and 2WD driver death rates were statistically identical, as the confidence intervals overlapped between both trims. Both were also statistically indistinguishable from the 2WD Odyssey.

2011-14 Honda Pilot
4WD – 15 (5-25), 2WD – 17 (3-32).

I recently wrote about the Pilot in the context of how neither the 4WD nor 2WD trim had any statistical safety advantages over the 4WD or 2WD trims of the much smaller Honda CR-V. As noted in that article, both trims of the Pilot were also indistinguishable from each other based on driver death rates.

2011-14 Mercedes-Benz E-Class sedan
4WD – 5 (0-26), 2WD – 4 (0-22).

Not many cars outside the luxury market are sold in large numbers in 4WD and 2WD trims; fortunately, the E-Class is a perennial best seller and had enough sales to show, once again, that the 4WD and 2WD trims were statistically identical from a driver survivability perspective. Even the confidence intervals were nearly identical. To put it simply, if you crashed an E-class, it wasn’t because you were in a 4WD or 2WD.

2011-14 Ford F-150 SuperCrew
4WD – 24 (17-31), 2WD – 22 (10-34).

Finally, our token pickup, the F-150, showed again that driver survivability had nothing to do with whether the transmission was 4WD or 2WD. The confidence intervals overlapped again, as they did in all of the examples above, showing that, from a mathematical standpoint, there was no difference in the safety of either trim.

Why aren’t there safety differences between 4WD and 2WD?

The reasons why there aren’t safety differences is because there aren’t any special powers inherent in 4WD transmissions. They’re simply transmissions where all four wheels are powered instead of the front or back two. Once a vehicle is in motion, all four wheels are in motion, powered or not. A 4WD system doesn’t help you steer more accurately or stop more quickly; your steering has to do with the overall geometry of your vehicle, your speed, and the quality of your tires. Your stopping power involves many things (to be discussed below), but none of them have to do with whether you’re driving a 4WD transmission or a 2WD transmission. And as I’ve said many times before, the lion’s share of how safely you drive doesn’t involve what you’re driving, but how and where.

But what about winter driving? Isn’t 4WD safer on snow and ice?

No, it isn’t. The sole advantage of 4WD is, when paired with suitable tires, an increased ability to extricate the vehicle from low-traction situations. This means an improved ability to get moving in mud, slush, snow, and similar wet/dry situations. 4WD will not help you stop any sooner than 2WD in a vehicle matched by road conditions, speed, mass, tire size and tread, and brake quality. Every 4-wheeled vehicle on the road already has 4-wheel braking, and ABS will already do more to stop you than you ever could. Similarly, 4WD will not help you steer; every 4-wheeled vehicle already has 2-wheel steering, and ESC will do more to keep you heading in your intended direction than anything you could ever imagine; that’s what makes it life-saving technology.

What does make a difference for snow / winter driving safety?

Winter tires! They’re specifically designed to work through snow and cold conditions, and this is why a 2WD vehicle with winter tires will almost always be a better choice (as in, 99.9% of the time) than the same vehicle (or nearly any vehicle) in a 4WD configuration and all-season tires. On top of this, avoiding driving through snow, limiting driving when avoiding it is impossible, and driving as slowly as safely possible are the best techniques to get you through winter conditions, independent of vehicle and tire choice.

What about driving through or over ice? What’s the safest vehicle for ice?

Finally, when it comes to ice, there isn’t a safe vehicle out there that doesn’t use caterpillar tracks, and those kinds of vehicles aren’t street legal. Practically speaking, both 4WD and 2WD are equally helpless (or equally capable, if you’re optimistic); ice results in a loss to complete absence of traction, depending on the quality of the ice. The only way to counteract this actively is through studded tires, which are either restricted or banned throughout the United States. Winter tires will be better than all-season tires, but even they won’t provide dry-road equivalent traction on ice. Avoiding it, followed by driving as slowly as possible through it on winter tires, are your best options if you don’t have studded tires. 4WD won’t make any difference for stopping or steering through it.

Does this mean I should never buy a 4WD vehicle again for safety?

No and yes. If you live somewhere with more than 100 inches of snow a year or where the streets may not be plowed for several days or you have a job that doesn’t allow you to take personal days due to unsafe weather, then you might want a 4WD vehicle in addition to winter tires to increase your odds of not getting stuck on the way to or from work (or wherever you need to drive during or after heavy snowfall). However, this describes around 5% of the US population, and that’s being very, very generous. For the vast majority of people, 2WD paired with winter tires will help you handle any part of winter when paired with good judgment.

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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