High-backed or backless booster – which car seat should you choose?

Do backless booster seats offer your child enough protection? Now that regulations may be tightening following concerns about side impact safety, we reveal what you need to know

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Car seat laws changed dramatically in 2006, when new legislation meant all children up to 12 years old (or until they reached a height of 135cm) had to use an ‘appropriate’ car seat.

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Since then backless booster seats have been the preferred option for many parents as they are often a cheap and extremely portable option. 

There have been recent reports on backless booster seats laws and whether they’d be changing, with the possibly of  booster cushions possibly being banned altogether. 

Booster seats will not be banned under any new laws.  In fact, the car seat makers who help develop the laws have confirmed there’s no plans to ban backless boosters cushions at all, it is safer for children to use booster cushions as opposed to using nothing when travelling in a car.

What is happening, however, is a height and age increase in when children should use backless booster seats.

For years booster cushions have fallen under the Group 2/3 car seat category, meaning they can be used from around 4-years-old.  The new extension recommends children use backless boosters once they are 125cm or taller, which is roughly about 7-years-old.  

When is this happening? 

From January 2017 manufacturers will no longer make boosters cushions for smaller children, only the backless boosters for kids over 125cm tall. 

It’s also worth noting that this change will apply to new products, not child restraint systems which are already in use and meet existing safety standards.

That means you won’t need to buy a new booster seat to meet any rule change, and if you use older booster seats that comply with the existing regulations you will not be breaking the law if you continue to use them after any rule change.

And while we at MFM believe that all parents have the right to choose whatever products they want to use with their children, we recommend parents use complete high-backed car seats for long term use. 

Which brings us on to the new i-Size law. It came into force in the UK in April 2015.  As it is still being developed it currently only covers car seats in the Group 0+, Group 1 categories, not Group 2 or 3, which booster seats come under. 

As the i-Size law won’t be the only car seat law until 2018, there’s still quite a bit of work to do in regards to changing the laws for seats in the Group 2, 2/3 category.  

But we suspect there will be major changes to children’s car seat legislation, especially surrounding booster cushions, in the next few years, as we describe below.

A ban on backless boosters?

You may have seen recent reports in the media about booster seats being banned under new laws. This isn’t currently the case. 

While lawmakers and safety experts are looking to review the rules on car seats for children over the age of 15 months, which includes booster seats, the talks are still ongoing and there haven’t been any dates set for any changes.

So please don’t panic if you use a booster seat for your children. 

It’s also worth noting that if there are any changes to the law it will apply to new products, not seats that are already in use and meet existing safety standards, according to the Department for Transport.

So you won’t need to buy a new booster seat to meet any rule change, and if you use older booster seats that comply with the existing regulations you will not be breaking the law if you continue to use them after any rule change, the Department for Transport spokesman has confirmed to the BBC.

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What are backless booster seats?

A cheaper, portable alternative to car seats, a booster seat is generally a plastic box that’s about the size of a standard cushion. 

It works by raising your child off the vehicle seat so that an adult seatbelt fits across his pelvis and ribcage.

Booster seats fall under the Group 2/3 category in the car seat industry and can be used when your child weighs between 22 and 36kg – roughly 4-11 years. 

What protection does a backless booster seat offer?

Booster cushions use adult seatbelts, so it is the vehicle 3-point belt that protects children in the event of an accident. The seatbelt spreads the force of an impact over the strongest parts of a child’s skeleton. It’s therefore vital when using a backless booster to make sure the seatbelt is properly adjusted.

So are backless boosters safe enough?

Safety experts are concerned that backless boosters don’t go far enough to protect children, particularly during a side-impact crash. Indeed, according to recent research up to 25% of car crashes involve a side-on collision. 

Peter Vicary-Smith, explains why some experts are focusing on in-car safety. “Every year in the UK, around 30 children under 12 years old are killed while travelling in cars, and a further 300 are seriously injured.”

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Why are backless boosters so popular?

They are cheap, very portable and also a great option for a second or third car and occasional lifts home for friends.

Without a doubt, using a backless booster is much better than not using a car seat at all.  As Edmund King, the AA’s president states, “…occasionally it may not be convenient to use a high-back booster, in which case a child is better off on a simple booster cushion than just using the adult belts.”

Backless boosters on sale

Some well-established car seat manufacturers still sell backless booster seats in addition to high-backed boosters that can be adapted to a cushion-only version once your child is older. Others no longer do. 

Some of the popular brands still selling backless booster products include Graco and Mothercare. 

A spokesperson from Mothercare explains the store’s approach. “Here at Mothercare we know that customers have differing needs from their car seats. Some will be used in the main vehicle every day while others will be for occasional use, on holiday or in another family member’s car.

“To address these wide-ranging needs, we offer an extensive choice of car seats. All car seats sold at Mothercare conform to strict European Safety Regulations and we offer a free Safe Fit service where trained experts show customers how to fit the car seat safely.”

To check if a booster seat meets current legislation check the packaging, if in doubt, call the manufacturer.  

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Are backless boosters already disappearing?

One of the UK’s major car seat manufacturers, Britax, has already phased out its own popular version of the backless booster. 

Britax found that approximately half (49%) of seat belts used to secure child seats may be fitted incorrectly. They are often twisted, too high, or fitted around the seat and not the child.

On top of misfittings, these booster cushions also offer no head or side impact protection for children.

This led the brand to launch a campaign earlier this year called “Bin the Booster” in a bid to get parents to stop using booster cushions. 

Along with the campaign, Britax released a video of booster seats in a crash test versus Group 2-3 seats (for children weighing between 15-36kg), and we must admit, the video is quite alarming.

Mark Bennett, Britax’s safety expert, said that the video footage vividly demonstrates the importance of deep protective side wings, support for the child’s head and seat belt guides that ensure that seat belts are correctly positioned and fitted.

“We are calling for all parents using booster cushions to switch to a high-backed booster option and help us further spread the word about the inadequate protection these cushions provide.”

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So should you stop using your backless booster?

As we said earlier, we at MFM believe that all parents have the right to choose whatever products you want to use with their children. That said we do recommend the use of complete high-backed car seats up to the height of 135cm or until children are over 12 years old for long-term use.

If your child does have a backless booster, it’s crucial that you make sure both the seat and seat belt are properly fitted each time you drive.

How to use a backless booster safely

  • The seat belt should go over your child’s pelvic region (high on his thighs or low on his hips), not his tummy
  • The seat belt should cross over your child’s shoulder and chest, not his neck and arms
  • The seat belt should be fastened securely and be as tight as possible
  • Your child should be sitting up straight, with his back flat against the seat, not slouching
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High-backed boosters vs backless

Advantages of high-backed boosters

  • High-backed booster seats offer side protection around your child’s head and sometimes round the trunk of your child’s body too.
  • They include a headrest, which can make longer journeys much more comfortable.
  • Most models can be used by children from aged 4-12 and some manufacturers offer designs with a detachable back-part so that they are easier to transport.

Disadvantages of high-backed boosters

  • They’re larger than just a booster base and so less portable
  • High-backed boosters are considerably more expensive than backless ones, which is a key consideration when spare seats are needed for relatives’ cars. However, you’ll be using it for around 8 years, so it becomes a long-lasting investment.
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