As parents hear that the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and NHTSA recommend that children stay in CRs longer, the number of CRs that families will attempt to fit into any given vehicle also is likely to rise. In a recent survey, AAA found that over 90 percent of parents with children under 13 years old reported being aware of the new guidelines to stay in each stage as long as possible, and a third of those reported changing CPS behavior due to the information. Therefore, families with multiple children and those who drive carpools are more likely than ever to encounter challenging situations as they try to fit three across in a crowded back seat. For families with one or more children riding in booster seats, this can be especially difficult because of the need to regularly access the seat belt to buckle and unbuckle.
There are many pieces to the “three-across” puzzle. Vehicles may pose challenges with the shapes of their seatbacks and cushions, position of the buckles or lower anchors, or overall width of the back seat. Over the last few years, seat belt design has tended to feature much lower buckles on little or no webbing, and an increased emphasis on fuel economy has resulted in narrower back seats overall. CRs, on the other hand, continue to get larger (wider as well as taller) to accommodate the larger average size of American children. Booster seats, in particular, have gotten wider in order to meet the needs of the growing number of obese children. Combine these wide CRs with narrow vehicle seats and shorter buckle stalks, and there’s often a big problem when it’s time to buckle up.
Guidelines for Side-by-Side Placement
The standardized CPS curriculum does not provide guidance regarding whether or not it is okay for CRs that are side by side to touch, and, in general, it is reasonable to look to the manufacturers themselves for this type of advice. This subject was not mentioned in any of the manuals that SRN checked nor on any of the manufacturer website FAQs.
SRN asked Graco for a statement on this subject and got the following reply for its products. (Editor’s Note: Close to press time, SRN suggested to the Manufacturers’ Alliance for CPS the idea of a joint CR manufacturer statement. We will report on that in a future issue if one is made.):
Graco allows its CRs to touch, provided that:
- A tight installation, as described in the instructions and CPS standardized curriculum, can be achieved.
- The positions of the CRs on the vehicle seat are not changed by the contact. That is, they still align properly with respect to the seat belt or LATCH anchors that secure them.
- There is no contact or force that would bend or deform either of the CRs.
- The LATCH lower connectors or seat belts do not cross over one another to achieve the installation.
It is important to note that when CRs are installed so close to one another that they touch, testing for a tight fit must be done with extra scrutiny. The typical method of grasping the CR near the belt path and pushing side to side may provide deceptive feedback, as the close quarters might disguise a loose installation. In these cases, it is especially important to also check the lap belt or LATCH connector strap to confirm that it is taut.
Another consideration that is sometimes mentioned in CR manuals, and that can come into play especially when multiple CRs are installed, is whether the buckle button rests against the CR. Some manuals point out that the buckle button must not make contact with the CR, as this pressure might cause the buckle to disengage, either in a crash or due to normal pressure. No mention is made regarding whether or not this advice would extend to situations in which the button contacts an adjacent CR, but logic would suggest it should.
Be sure to consider advice in the vehicle owner’s manual. Some manuals prohibit placing CRs on adjacent vehicle seats, especially when using LATCH. (Note that, in some cases, the 2011 LATCH Manual* provides updated information on this subject in Appendix B’s notes field for the particular model.)
Tight Connections: Boosters Are Often Especially Challenging
When it comes to fitting boosters alongside one another, even fractions of inches matter. To fit the three boosters in the photo above into a 2010 Chevy Equinox, one of three Graco Turboboosters had to be switched out for a slightly narrower Evenflo Amp. Even then, the result was a tight squeeze to buckle the belt between the boosters, as shown here.
When CRs are right next to each other, it can be almost impossible to reach the seat belt or LATCH system to secure them. When the CRs have harnesses, these installation woes might be worthwhile as a one-time effort. However, for booster riders, it’s an ongoing challenge to buckle and unbuckle on each and every ride. Even if there is only one booster in the mix, wedging one or two hands between CRs to find and attach the seat belt can be time-consuming, frustrating, and even painful. Frustration levels can increase when these steps add extra time to the already-significant effort of loading multiple kids safely into the car.
Since to many parents the concept of keeping their 8- to 12-year-old in a booster seat is already an adjustment, these buckling difficulties could easily dissuade them from booster use without some helpful advice on how to cope. Therefore, when advising parents with multiple children or who carpool, it is important to remember to offer further assistance to navigate (or potentially avoid) these challenges. See the info below for some helpful tips.
— Jenny Burris Harvey
©Safe Ride News March/April 2012
*(UPDATE: Always consult the most current LATCH Manual for LATCH weight limits, now the 2013 edition.)
Tips for Success:
Buckling Boosters in Tight Spaces
Here are some useful tips for dealing with the booster issues described in the main article.
Consider Booster Width
This may sound obvious, but if space might be an issue, compare booster widths before purchasing. Current boosters come in a variety of widths, and even a fraction of an inch can make a big difference. Look for models that are narrow overall, like the Graco Turbobooster or Evenflo Amp, or that have adjustable widths, like the Diono Monterey. Some online resources, such as http://sites.google.com/site/carseatmeasurements, provide measurements for many dimensions of booster (and other CR) models that can help guide parents to boosters that may be the most promising for further research. (However, nothing trumps “try before you buy.”)
Look for Designs That Ease Buckle Access
Some boosters, such as the Combi Kobuk, have cutouts at the hips that allow access to seat belt buckles. This means the booster is significantly narrower in the back toward the seat bight than in the front, unlike many that have wide, squared-off rear corners. The BubbleBum inflatable backless booster is another model to consider. Besides the fact that it is very narrow (reportedly the narrowest on the market), its soft sides are somewhat flexible, making it easier to access a buckle in even the tightest situations without difficulty or discomfort.
The bottom of the Combi Kobuk (left) has cutouts behind the child’s hips for ease of buckle access (see red arrows). More-typical designs, like the Graco AirBooster (right), do not offer any space to reach the buckle.
Compare Highback to Backless
While highback boosters may offer added side impact protection, many have wide side wings. Therefore, a backless booster might make fitting three across possible in some crowded back seats, especially in vehicles with padded and sculpted seatback contours. However, backless boosters are an option only as long as there is adequate head support provided by the vehicle seat.
Think Outside the Booster
In some situations, a vest (like the RideSafer Travel Vest) or harness (like the Safety 1st Go Hybrid) might be an option in tight spaces since they eliminate much of the bulk. Be sure to consider tether requirements for these products, however, by making sure that an appropriate anchor exists in the vehicle, as needed.
Use Your Human Resources
Booster-aged children have smaller hands than adults. With practice, most children can make the latchplate-to-buckle connection on their own, and their hands may fit better, though the final belt adjustment should be checked by a grown-up.
When you are working with different types of CRs, swapping seating positions sometimes helps. As long as there is a lap-shoulder belt in the center, that position could be a good place to try the booster seat since the buckle stalk is often longer there than in outboard positions of newer vehicles. In other situations, the reverse could be the case—the geometry of the booster may not align well with a longer buckle stalk, but would work better in another position that has a more rigid, lower buckle placement.
Booster Seat Gymnastics
When all else fails, many families have resorted to leaving the booster seat buckled and having their child climb in and out of the webbing for each ride. This technique still requires attention from the caregiver to make sure that the seat belt is pulled snug for each ride. Care also must be taken to make sure that the seat belt doesn’t get switched into ALR mode, since this would require the belt to be unbuckled and retracted for the child to exit the booster, defeating the purpose. This technique also may not work well in seating positions with locking latchplates, as it may be difficult to loosen and tighten the buckled belt as the child loads and unloads.