The 5-Step Test is the only accurate way to assess if a child is optimally protected by a vehicle’s lap/shoulder seatbelt system without a booster seat or other type of child restraint. The 5 “test” questions guide parents or caregivers in their assessment of the seatbelt fit on the child. This fit will vary depending on the child, the vehicle and even the specific seating position within the vehicle. The 5-Step Test takes all important variables into consideration including child’s size, ability to stay seated properly, depth of vehicle seat and seatbelt geometry. Weight and age are actually meaningless factors for determining if a seatbelt fits a child correctly.
Taking the 5-Step Test is quick and simple. Have the child buckle up in the vehicle and then answer these 5 questions:
1. Does the child sit all the way back on the vehicle seat?
2. Are knees bent comfortably at the edge of the vehicle seat?
3. Does seatbelt cross the shoulder properly? (it should be centered over the collar bone)
4. Is the lap portion of the seatbelt low – touching the thighs?
5. Can the child stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride (awake and asleep)?
Bonus step – feet planted firmly on floor
Why is the 5-Step Test Important?
The 5-Step Test is important because adult seatbelts are not designed to restrain children and ill-fitting belts can actually cause injuries in a crash. Of course that isn’t an excuse to not buckle up. Kids are always better off if they are restrained in a crash, even if it’s sub-optimally. Not buckling up dramatically increases the child’s risk of serious or fatal injuries. However, using a belt-positioning booster seat for older kids and “tweens” who don’t yet pass the 5-Step Test significantly reduces the risk of injury. Unfortunately, the majority of older kids who really still need booster seats aren’t using one. This leads to a lot of misuse, or non-use, of the adult seatbelt. Poor seatbelt fit makes for uncomfortable kids and uncomfortable kids are much more likely to either not buckle up at all or to misuse the seatbelt in ways which reduce their effectiveness and increase the risks of injury in a crash. How many times have you seen kids tuck the shoulder belt under their arm, or worse yet – put it behind their back entirely? Whenever I see a child do this, I know that this child probably still needs a booster to help position the seatbelt properly.
Since most adults are visual learners, I’ve put together some examples of the 5-Step Test that you can practice on to get a better idea of what to look for. As you’ll see from these real life examples, age is irrelevant.
Child: 8.5 yrs, 57 lbs, 53″ / Vehicle: 2006 Ford Escape / Booster: Clek Olli
1. Sitting all the way back in vehicle seat? No, notice the slumping posture.
2. Knees bent comfortably over edge of vehicle seat? Yes, but only because she has slouched forward to be able to bend them. If she sat all the way back (where she should be) her knees would not bend comfortably over the edge.
3. Does seatbelt cross shoulder properly? No, it’s too high and touching her neck.
4. Is lap portion of seatbelt low – touching tops of the thighs where the strong hip bones are? No, it’s up over the soft abdomen where it can damage internal organs in a crash.
5. Can child stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride? Only the parent or caregiver can answer this question but in this case – it’s a moot point. She clearly does not pass all portions of the 5-Step Test and still needs a booster to ride safely in this seating position in this vehicle.
Now let’s compare the seatbelt fit when she’s using a booster:
She’s sitting all the way back now (notice the change in posture), the shoulder belt is positioned correctly (centered across the shoulder) and the lap belt is low – touching the tops of the thighs. This is how a seatbelt is designed to fit an adult.
Child: 10 years, 56″, 80 lbs / Vehicle: 2000 Honda Accord / Booster: Cosco Ambassador
2. Knees bent comfortably over edge of vehicle seat? You can’t tell in these pictures but the answer is yes – his knees do bend comfortably.
3. Does seatbelt cross shoulder properly? Yes.
4. Is lap portion of seatbelt low – touching tops of the thighs where the strong hip bones are? No, it’s up over his abdomen where it can damage internal organs in a crash.
5. Can child stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride? The answer here happens to be yes but again, it’s a moot point since the lap portion of the seatbelt doesn’t fit him properly without a booster.
Now let’s compare the seatbelt fit when he’s using a booster in this seating position. Notice how the lap belt is now positioned lower – touching the tops of his thighs where his strong hip bones are. The hip bones and collar bone are strong enough to take the brunt of crash forces. There’s nothing strong inside the abdominal area and the injuries that can be caused by ill-fitting lap belts in a crash can be devastating. Unfortunately, “seatbelt syndrome” (specific patterns of intra-abdominal injuries) is common in children who have been involved in crashes when parents or caregivers skip the booster seat or allow children to move out of them and into the adult seatbelt prematurely.
Moving along – let’s look at our next scenario:
Child: 11 years, 62 lbs, 53″ / Vehicle: 2005 Toyota Sienna / Booster: Graco Air Booster
2. Knees bent comfortably over edge of vehicle seat? Not if he was sitting all the way back where he should be.
3. Does seatbelt cross shoulder properly? No. It’s too high and up against his neck.
4. Is lap portion of seatbelt low – touching tops of the thighs where the strong hip bones are? No, it’s up over his abdomen.
5. Can child stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride? Again, moot point.
Now let’s compare the seatbelt fit when he’s using a booster in this seating position. Notice how the lap belt is now positioned much lower – touching the tops of his thighs. Shoulder belt is now positioned correctly too. Additionally, he has some extra protection from the headwings of this highback booster model. Highback boosters (particularly those with deep headwings) can provide more protection in side-impact crashes and are significantly better for sleeping in. Backless boosters, while generally very effective for positioning the seatbelt properly on most older kids, are really best suited for kids who never sleep in the car.
Finally, here are some pictures of kids who clearly pass the 5-Step Test.
Sitting all the way back? Check.
Knees bent comfortably over edge of seat? Check.
Lap belt low – touching top of thighs? Check.
Shoulder belt positioned correctly? Check.
Can stay seated this way for the entire ride, every ride? Check, check!
These kids pass the 5-Step Test and can ride safely in just the adult seatbelt!