Is your child safely riding to school?

How many vehicles pull up to the drop-off with a kindergartner or first-grader sitting in the front seat with only a seat belt? It’s time we do something.

Oregon law requires all children younger than 8 sit in a booster seat unless the seat belt fits correctly. That means by law, every single kindergartner and first-grader, and most second-graders, should be using a booster seat. Is this what you see at the drop-off?

As you will hear me repeatedly say, the laws of physics always trump the law of the land. A child aged 4 to 8 has about a 50 percent decreased risk of severe injury or death if they are in a booster seat compared with a seat belt alone. Science doesn’t lie.

As a certified child safety passenger technician since 1997, I have never seen a child younger than 9 who fit correctly in a seat belt alone, and because most children will not fit correctly until they reach around 4 feet 9 inches tall, most kids will not fit correctly until somewhere around age 12 for boys and 11 for girls (girls go through their growth spurts a bit earlier).

What that means is that most kids should be in boosters until 5th or 6th grade! Again, look around, and see if that is what you see.

Kids younger than 13 have a 40 percent increased risk of injury sitting in the front seat. This means every child in elementary school should always sit in the back seat.

This is not just an issue on the highway, because it is true that 75 percent of all crashes occur within 3 miles of home, and most crashes occur at speeds less that 40 MPH. A 50-pound first-grader will generate more than a ton of force in a 30 MPH crash. Imagine a ton of force on the forehead of a child hitting a dashboard!

Airbags are great for adults, not for kids, and even the “new generation” airbags have not decreased the injury risk for kids in the front seat. So what can you do? A few simple steps can protect your kids, and all their friends on their travel to school in mom or dad’s car:

All kids should sit in a booster seat until aged 8 to 12. Kids can move out of their boosters when they fit in a seat belt alone. See if your child fits:

  • Put your child in the back seat with their bottom and back against the vehicle’s seat back. Do their knees bend comfortably at the seat edge? If yes, go on. If not, the child must stay in a booster seat.
  • Buckle the seat belt. Does the lap belt stay low on the hips? If yes, go on. If it rests on the soft part of the stomach, the child must stay in a booster seat.
  • Look at the shoulder belt. Does it cross the collarbone? If yes, go on. If it is on the face or neck, the child must remain in a booster seat. Never put the shoulder belt under the child’s arm or behind the child’s back. Do not allow children to play with the shoulder portion of a seat belt.
  • Can the child maintain the correct seating position with the shoulder belt on the shoulder and the lap belt low across the hips for the entire trip? If yes, the child has passed the Safety Belt Fit Test. If no, the child should return to a booster seat and re-test later.

Finally, if you see something, say something! Establish a culture of safety at your school. Work with parents and friends to ensure every child arrives safely to school. Consider a PTA-sponsored program to make your school the safest it can be.

The Tom Sargent Children’s Safety Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital can help you find resources and information to help you protect your kids and everyone at your school. Visit us in the first-floor lobby of OHSU Doernbecher or call us at 504 418-5666, and DRIVE SAFELY!

Ben Hoffman, M.D.
Medical Director, OHSU Doernbecher Tom Sargent Children’s Safety Center
Assistant Professor of Pediatrics
OHSU Doernbecher Children’s Hospital



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