A good fit is easier than ever to find when shopping for a booster seat, new ratings from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) show.
A record 31 seats have been designated Best Bets, meaning they correctly position a vehicle safety belt on a typical 4 to 8 year-old in almost any car, minivan, or SUV. Prices for these top-rated seats range from less than $15 to several hundred dollars.
In addition to the 31 Best Bets, another 5 seats are Good Bets, meaning they provide acceptable belt fit in most vehicles. Six boosters are not recommended because they don't provide proper belt fit, and consumers are advised to avoid them.
Booster seats are for children who have outgrown forward-facing child restraints. A booster should elevate a child and route the lap and shoulder belts, which are designed for adults, in the correct position to restrain a child during a crash. Some boosters do this better than others. The problem is that consumers can't tell a good booster from a bad one just by comparing features or prices. The Institute's booster seat ratings, initiated in 2008, are the only evaluations to tell parents which boosters do the best job of improving belt fit for children in the widest range of vehicles.
"A Best Bet means any of these top-rated boosters should work well in the family SUV or the babysitter's sedan," says Anne McCartt, the Institute's senior vice president for research.
Engineers evaluated 62 booster models in the latest round. Twenty-one of them show up twice in the lists. These are dual-use seats, which can work
as highback or backless boosters. In the ratings, each dual-use model is considered to be 2 separate boosters for a total of 83 seats evaluated, 11 more than last year.
The biggest group of boosters falls into a middle category, designated "check fit." These 41 seats may provide good fit for some children in some vehicles, but not as many as Good Bets or Best Bets. Parents are advised to make sure the lap belt lies flat across a child's upper thighs and the shoulder belt crosses snugly over the middle of the shoulder. If not, a different seat is needed.
The focus of the Institute's ratings is belt fit, not crash performance, and no crash tests are conducted as part of the evaluation. To assess belt fit, engineers use a test dummy representing an average-size 6 year-old. They measure how lap and shoulder belts fit the dummy in each booster under 4 conditions representing the range of belt configurations in real-world vehicles.
Improvements and innovations: Boosters have improved a lot in recent years. In 2008 there were 10 Best Bets. That fell to 9 in 2009 but soared to 21 last year after manufacturers began using the Institute's test protocols as they designed and updated their seats.
"Just 4 years into our ratings program, parents have a wide variety of top-rated seats to choose from," McCartt says. "Still, boosters that don't consistently provide good belt fit outnumber the ones that do, so consumers need to keep paying attention to this issue."
One thing consumers need to be aware of is that most dual-use boosters have different ratings for each mode. For example, 14 dual-use boosters are Best Bets or Good Bets in highback mode but are designated check fit in backless mode. For one seat, the Evenflo Big Kid Sport, the opposite is true: It's a Best Bet in backless mode and a check fit in highback mode.
The Harmony Dreamtime remains the only dual-use booster that's a Best Bet in both modes, while the Combi Kobuk Air Thru is a Good Bet in both modes.
A notable newcomer to the Best Bet list is the BubbleBum, an inflatable seat that's marketed for vacations, car pools, and taxis, as well as everyday use. When needed, it can be quickly inflated by blowing into a valve at the back of the seat.
Among booster manufacturers, Harmony Juvenile Products continues to be a standout. All 5 seats the Canadian company currently makes, counting the Dreamtime in both modes, are Best Bets. The company is discontinuing the dual-use Baby Armor, which was a Best Bet in highback mode but not recommended in backless mode.
Small change, big difference: Diono, which recently changed its name from Sunshine Kids, bumped an existing seat, the Monterey, from check fit to Best Bet by changing the shoulder belt guide. The new ranking applies when the dual-use seat is used in highback mode. The booster remains a "check fit" in backless mode. Consumers should look for Montereys manufactured after July 2011 to ensure they are getting the newer version.
Meanwhile, the Evenflo Symphony 65, which has been a Good Bet since 2009, now has a sister seat, the Symphony 65 e3. It has a slightly different shoulder belt guide, and that makes enough of a difference to make it a Best Bet.
"Booster manufacturers often use similar names for different seats or, in the case of the redesigned Monterey, even the same names," McCartt says.
"It's important for consumers to look at model numbers and manufacture dates when consulting our ratings."