Child health experts, who conducted a national survey in the US, found that although most parents make sure their children use a life-saving booster seat in the family car, they tend to forego booster seats when carpooling. The experts suggest shortage of space in cars and the difficulty of making arrangements with other drivers are the main reasons parents do this.

You can read how researchers at the University of Michigan’s (U-M’s) CS Mott Children’s Hospital in Ann Arbor went about their study in the 30 January online before print issue of Pediatrics.

Previous studies have already found that booster-seat use among schoolchildren is consistently lower than national goals, and with this study, Dr Michelle Macy and colleagues wanted to explore links between booster seat use and carpooling.

Macy, a clinical lecturer of emergency medicine at U-M and a pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital, told the press they found that while most parents they surveyed said their children used a safety seat when travelling in the family car, they were alarmed when more than 30% said they did not enforce this rule when their children rode with other drivers.

For their study, they examined the responses to part of a web-based cross-sectional survey of a nationally representative sample of US parents in January 2010. They analyzed the answers to 12 questions that parents of 4 to 8-year-old answered about use of booster seats and carpooling.

The results showed that of 681 parents who met their inclusion criteria, most (76%) reported their child used a safety seat when riding in the family car. Of those reported to use seatbelts, 74% did so in keeping with their state law.

Parents were more likely to report child safety seat use if their child was younger and if there was a state law enforcing use of booster seats. However, half of parents surveyed said they did not know the age cited in their state booster seat law and another 20% guessed it incorrectly.

Among parents who carpooled and whose children used a safety seat, 79% said they would always ask another driver to use a booster seat for their child, but only 55% said they would always put their child in a booster seat when driving friends who don’t have boosters.

The authors conclude that booster seat use is inconsistent during carpooling, which is a common driving situation.

They suggest social norms and parents’ confidence is linked to booster seat use, and that:

“Clinicians who care for children should increase efforts to convey the importance of using the size-appropriate restraint for every child on every trip.”

The researchers also note that practical barriers such as lack of space in the vehicle and difficulties making arrangements with other drivers lead parents to forego safety seats when carpooling.

Macy said since many parents seem unaware of current booster seat recommendations, pediatricians should tell them what it is, as a matter of priority.

In most states of the US there are laws about use of booster seats. Most of these say children up to the age of 8 should use a booster seat.

However, the national recommendation is that a child should have a booster seat until they reach 57 inches in height (145 cm), the height of the average 11-year-old, considerably later than the age cited in most state laws.

If a child starts using an adult seatbelt too early, this can be dangerous because the chances are the shoulder or lap belt does not fit properly and may not be life-saving. A booster seat makes the adult belt fit the child better.

Macy said:

“Parents need to understand the importance of using a booster seat for every child who does not fit properly in an adult seat belt on every trip.”

Click here to see the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s latest evaluations of booster seats.

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD