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Carpooling Safely: Recommended Portable Car Seats

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Best Portable Carseats for Older Kids in Car Pools and for Travel

With school back in session and fall sports and activities in full gear, it can be challenging to figure out how to get kids where they need to go…safely! Carpooling has sure changed from when we were kids! Fitting additional children safely into vehicles can be tricky. Thankfully child restraint manufacturers have noticed a need for products to make this feat a bit easier, whether it be in personal vehicles or while traveling. While many of these suggestions would apply to rental vehicles and rideshares, the focus of this article is really on day-to-day driving.

I have four kids, so carpooling becomes even more of a challenge. Thankfully I own a lot of seats and don’t hesitate to swap them in, out, and around, but if you’re going to be using someone else’s seat to transport a child, it’s really important that you know how to use it. It may benefit you to purchase an additional seat vs. trying to figure out how to use each of your children’s friend’s seats. And on that note, if you’re adding additional harnessed seats to your vehicle, you’ll need to make sure you have room for those seats to be safely installed and have tether anchors for all forward-facing car seats.

We typically keep two products with us at all times, just in case we need to pick up an extra child or two: the Ride Safer Travel Vest and one of the other great travel boosters like the BubbleBum, Graco RightGuide, or TurboGo. This combination allows us to accommodate a very wide range of children from preschool through elementary school! And the beauty of these products is that they are very narrow and can fit pretty much anywhere a seatbelt fits.

Most people realize that you need enough width for a child restraint to fit in order to add another child passenger, but there are other important considerations. All passengers need head restraints (either from the vehicle seat or from a car seat) up to at least the top of their ears. If you have a seating position without a head restraint, or one that’s quite low, you’ll need to be mindful of what type of restraint is used there. (And just a reminder…an adult shouldn’t be sitting there either!) That’s one great benefit of the Ride Safer Travel Vest. It allows many kids to sit in a seating position without a head restraint because it doesn’t lift them up off of the vehicle seat!

Here’s an example of two different boosters…on the left is the Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong. You can see his ears are well above the seatback (not a problem here because this seat has a head restraint but the middle seat in this vehicle doesn’t!) The RightGuide, shown to the right, brings him down so his ears are just right at the top of the setback. He’d still be too tall to use this seating position if there weren’t a headrest, this gives you an idea of how the height of the booster seat can make a big difference in the height of the kid.

Shoulder belt positioning is another important consideration if you’re using backless boosters. It’s not uncommon for the shoulder belt to hover in front of the child without some adjustment. Your vehicle may have an adjustable shoulder belt anchor or a small bungee strap with a clip on the end. If this adjustment is not built into your vehicle (and sometimes even if it is), you’ll need a booster seat that offers some type of shoulder belt adjustment. Many, but not all, backless booster seats come with an adjustable strap with a clip at the end for assisting with proper shoulder belt fit.

Many people wonder what that little bungee strap with the plastic clip at the end is for…well here you go!

So what about when your kids ride with others?

If your child rides in a traditional rear or forward-facing 5-point harness, you’ll need to figure out if the other vehicle has an extra seat appropriate for your child or if you, or the driver, must install your child’s seat. Don’t rush this step. Be sure you take the time to understand how this vehicle may be different than what you’re used to. Don’t assume that the driver of the vehicle knows how to do it either! If, and only if, your child is mature enough to ride in a booster seat, this may be a good time to do so. Using a booster seat eliminates a number of mistakes that could be made with installation in a different vehicle. The Ride Safer Travel Vest may also be a great alternative for the times when a forward-facing child who typically rides in a harness needs to travel in another vehicle.

Since it is most common with children in booster seats, let’s talk more about booster seats for carpooling. Make sure your booster seats will fit. Installing any type of seat three-across can be challenging but boosters need room for buckling as well. Make sure your kids understand how to use their booster seat in a variety of situations. Teach them to check their shoulder belt fit and to always use a seating position with head support. Test your kids in other vehicles to see if they can set up their booster seat correctly, including assessing proper shoulder belt fit and finding a seating position with a head restraint. It’s likely that their travel booster seat may be different from their everyday booster seat so be sure your child understands the differences and how to use them both.

As I mentioned, the market is changing and we have so many products available to help with the challenges of carpooling. (Please remember that not all restraints are appropriate for every child or every vehicle. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions to ensure you’re using the restraint correctly.)

Don’t sacrifice safety for convenience. Protect your precious cargo EVERY ride.

 

Carpool-Friendly Child Restraints:

BubbleBum: This inflatable booster seat is narrow and very compact when deflated and rolled up making it a great solution for fitting in a middle seat or tossing in a backpack. Even fully inflated, it takes up very little room.

Ride Safer Travel Vest: This product is a cross between a 5 point harness and a traditional booster seat. Rather than lifting the child up to fit the vehicle seat belt, the vest lowers the seat belt down to fit the child. The surface area and energy-absorbing material help absorb crash forces and spread them over a wider area of the body like a 5 point harness does. The vest can also be used with the tether to stabilize the upper body of a child if he/she isn’t quite ready to sit completely still.

 

Graco RightGuide: One of the newest portable boosters on the market, the RightGuide is easy to use and plenty compact for a backpack. Just be sure the shoulder belt is making contact with the shoulder. If not, the included shoulder belt adjustment clip is stored neatly inside the bottom of the RightGuide.

 

Graco TurboGo: The wide-open belt guides make this booster very easy to use. It also has a unique fold that reduces the size of the booster by about 30% for easy transport while still giving you a nice full-size booster when you need it.

Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong (Highback and Backless Boosters): The Backless portion of this booster essentially folds in half. It’s much more compact than many boosters but it’s very easy to use and boosts kids up enough to often not need shoulder belt adjustment.

MiFold: While the MiFold is fabulous in theory, we haven’t found it to offer a consistent belt fit from vehicle to vehicle and child to child. Be sure to check the fit on the child in the vehicle where it will be used before sending this seat with your child.

HiFold: This folding highback booster is new to the market and appears to give a pretty good fit. It’s certainly not as compact as the backless boosters above, or the RSTV, but it may prove to be a nice addition to the market. (Not yet evaluated by CarseatBlog)

WhizRider: Similar to the Ride Safer Travel Vest, this very compact travel solution also lowers the seat belt down to fit the child. It does not have energy-absorbing material or an optional tether. (Not yet evaluated by CarseatBlog)

 

Turning My Kids into Safety Advocates

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I’m a mother of four (8, 8, 4, and 2) and a CPST-Instructor. My twins were 4 years old when I became a technician, although as an engineer, I’d been an advocate since before they were born. One day I was watching crash test videos as part of a training. One of my boys saw and asked what I was watching. For a moment I thought maybe this was too much for him to understand but I decided to show both of them and use it as an opportunity to explain why I’m so passionate about what I do. That was the start of something!

I’m proud to say my twin boys have become advocates for themselves and those around them. My favorite example is when my youngest went through his “arched back car seat refusal” phase, like all toddlers do, at about 13 months. One morning, after a particularly long struggle to get him into his car seat, I jokingly said, “well, I guess it’s time to turn him around!” One of my twins said, “NO MOM! That’s not safe!” Of course I told him I was only kidding and his response was, “But Mom, that’s not even funny to joke about!” My heart burst! He was watching out for his little brother and knew what was safest for him. What more can a mother ask for! From telling the parents of their younger sister’s friend’s that “she should still be rear facing” to telling a stranger at the ice cream shop that placing her infant’s car seat on top of the table isn’t safe, they’re making me proud (albeit slightly embarrassed at times, but I’ll take that knowing they’re simply watching out for someone’s safety).

Let me first explain that I don’t have the kind of kids that just comply with rules “because I said so.” They’re not the sit still and stay quiet kind of kids. But when it comes to rules, especially regarding safety, I believe in teaching kids WHY. Sure, at the end of the day they have to follow them because I say they do, but the chances that they will choose to comply without putting up a fight go up dramatically if they understand why the rules are in place. I show them the reason a booster seat is so important for them. We talk about the possible injuries from an incorrectly fitted seat belt. They hear me ask them questions like, “Do you prefer to keep your body in one piece?”, or “Would you like the seat belt to slice through your belly?” 

As we enter this age, where here in Colorado they are no longer required by law to use a booster seat as of their 8th birthday, it’s going to be very interesting to see what happens among their peer group. We’ve discussed how some bigger kids might choose unkind words regarding their booster use and how to respond to that. They’re now starting to notice and question when they see their friends riding without a booster seat. They are genuinely concerned for their safety and want their friends to be safe! So far I couldn’t be more proud of my boys for knowing, practicing, and even teaching best practice.

Data shows we’re doing a great job protecting our young children. Restraint usage is up, and injuries rates are down among most young children. Where we still have our work cutout for us is in the older children…8-12 years of age. For these children most state laws no longer require a booster seat and most parents believe that following the law protects their child so they must be safe without one if it’s legal. 

Just a quick refresher, children should be in a booster seat until the vehicle seat belt properly fits. It’s not about age, height or weight. It’s simply “when the seat belt fits correctly.” Here’s how we check.

  1. Does the child sit all the way back on the vehicle seat?
  2. Are the knees bent comfortably at the edge of the seat?
  3. Does the seatbelt cross the shoulder properly? (It should be centered over the collar bone)
  4. Is the lap portion of the belt 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 the floor

The results of this test will vary from one vehicle to another, from one seating position to another, etc. So a child might need a booster seat in one vehicle and not the other. 

I work at a local hospital doing pre-discharge appointments for families with new babies. Obviously I address the safety of all passengers in the vehicle so the subject of boosters for big kids comes up. It’s not uncommon that I encounter families with children who either aren’t even legally old enough to ride without a booster or children who, regardless of their age, still need a booster seat based on their size. I’m often met by parents who are hesitant to place their child back in a booster seat as though it’s some form of punishment. However, I’ve yet to meet a parent who wants their child to receive any of the common seat belt injuries for an improperly fitted seat belt. So how do we translate this to proper use among this age group?

I believe compliance will come in teaching people, parents and children alike, the “why”. Children (and their parents) need to understand that this isn’t some form of punishment or rule enforcement. It’s about preventing children from suffering horrible internal injuries from an improperly fitting seat belt. Together we can change the “stigma” around booster seat usage. Let’s make using booster seats cool. Let’s stop talking about booster seat use as an inconvenience and just make it the norm. There are so many wonderful options now for portable boosters like the BubbleBum, the Safety 1st Incognito, the Graco TurboBooster TakeAlong and Turbo GO just to name a few. Keeping an extra booster in your car for your kid’s friends is easy, and affordable. 

I’ve seen this “pact” asking parents to wait to give their kids cell phones until 8th grade. Let’s make a pact to keep our big kids safe in the car…by requiring boosters for all children who need them regardless of age, height or weight…by not taking short cuts because “we’re only driving a short distance” or “it’s just this one ride.” Together we can do this. We can make our children advocates for themselves and their peers.