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Good Question: What Are The Car Seat Laws?

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MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — The rules for car and booster seats can be confusing for any parent.

“My 4-and-a-half-year-old wants to move to the booster seat and my husband thinks he’s not old enough or big enough to do that,” said Michelle Wooster, of Minneapolis. “I would love to switch him to a flat booster because it would be a lot easier, but obviously I want him to be safe.”

Car seat laws vary by state. In Minnesota, children need to be either 8 years old or 4-foot-9 before they are able to sit in a seatbelt alone. The law changed in 2009 when the age limit was 4.

According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, only 46 percent of children ages 0-4 across the country used car seats in 1984. Minnesota first passed its child restraint law in 1982. Now, the fine is $50 plus fees, where the $50 goes back to the state to buy car seats for needy families.

“Babies, actually, in Minnesota need to be both 20 pounds and 1 year old before you can turn them around,” said Heather Darby, car seat safety expert with the Department of Public Safety.

But, in 2011, the American Academy of Pediatrics changed its recommendation for rear-facing car seats. Now, children are recommended to face the back until they are 2 years old.

Some parents decide to turn their children around earlier because their feet back up against the seat, but Darby said that shouldn’t matter.

“It’s five times safer to ride rear-faced until 2 years old,” she said. “It’s perfectly OK for their legs to be crossed or butting up against the seat.”

Once a child is turned forward-facing, Darby recommends parents stick with the five-point harness as long as the children don’t exceed the height or weight limit for the seat.

“We really don’t want to see any kids out of a five-point harness until they are at least 4 or 5 years old,” she said.

Until then, children haven’t developed enough muscle tone in their necks and are more likely to squirm in a seatbelt.

“They maybe are smaller and they can slip out and submarine underneath under a crash if they’re using a lap and shoulder belt,” she said.

As for outgrowing a booster, the law requires a child be either 8 years old or 4-foot-9, but Darby said parents should consider other circumstances.

“Just because the law only goes to age 8, that doesn’t mean you can’t keep using the booster. The safest thing is just to make that the lap and shoulder belt fit them the way it should,” she said.

The shoulder belt should be right at their shoulder and the lap belt should be low on their hips. Darby said she’s seen some children in boosters until age 12.

“If they’re putting the belt behind their shoulder or underneath their arm, that’s a sign that you still need a booster if they’re still doing that,” she said.

Washington, D.C., Maine and West Virginia’s state laws do not allow children under age 11 to sit in the front seat, but Darby recommends all children under 13 sit in the backseat because of the danger of airbags.

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