Vehicle seatbelts are generally designed for adults and do not properly fit a child. While the laws for properly restraining a child vary from state to state, no matter what is required by local law, in order to ride without a child seat, your child must be large enough for the vehicle seatbelt to properly fit them. Most children are not large enough (generally 4 feet 9 inches tall) for a seatbelt alone to properly fit them until they are 10 or 11 years old. While there is no single criteria for when a child can ride in just a vehicle seatbelt, there is a simple 5-step test that can be used to check if your child can be properly restrained with just seatbelt in your vehicle.
- Can your child sit all the way back in the vehicle seat with their back against the seat?
- When sitting back, do your child’s knees bend at the edge of the seat and feet rest flat on the floor?
- Does the shoulder belt cross the center of the chest and rest on the shoulder (not the neck)?
- Does the lap belt fit low and snug across the hips, touching the upper thighs?
- Can your child stay seated like this for the entire trip (no slouching, leaning over etc.)?
If the answer to ALL five of these questions is YES, then your child should be large enough to ride in the vehicle seatbelt. If the answer to one of more of these questions was NO, then your child still needs a booster seat to help position them properly to fit the vehicle seatbelt.
Keep in mind that not all vehicles are the same, so your child could pass the test in one vehicle but not in another. Also, it is possible in a vehicle such as a minivan, the child could pass the test in one row or seating position, but not all of them due to differences in the seat or seatbelts between seating positions. You should perform the 5-point test for any seating position your child rides. And remember, children should ride in the rear seat of the vehicle until they are at least 13 years old.