Most people think that seatbelts are meant to prevent ejection, when, in reality, they are meant to redirect crash forces to stronger parts of the body: the hips and chest. This makes the use of booster seats all the more important to prevent child injuries.

Takuro Ishikawa, PhD Candidate in Experimental Medicine

If you have been to the movies or watched TV in the last three decades, you are probably familiar with the following scene: someone is driving a car without wearing a seatbelt, the car crashes, and the person is fully or partially ejected through the windshield. The actor and the circumstances may be different: a villain in an action film, an extra in a zombie movie. Regardless of the details, the bottom-line story in those scenes is “seatbelts prevent you from being ejected out of the car.” Unfortunately, this depiction of traffic injuries perpetuates the common misconception that seatbelts are meant to prevent ejection, when, in reality, they are meant to redirect crash forces to stronger parts of the body: the hips and chest.

This misconception, however, has a kernel of truth. Seatbelts indeed prevent people from flying through the windshield of a crashing car, and, therefore, they prevent associated injuries. However, if the lap belt is incorrectly worn, on the stomach for example, then the person wearing it may end up with bruises or damage to internal organs (if the crash is more serious). Imagine that you strap a belt around your stomach and then let yourself fall down 2 meters. Ouch, right? This is like a yank at 20 kilometers per hour.

This misconception is even more dangerous for children, whose bodies, muscles, bones, and internal organs are not fully developed. And it is one of the reasons experts recommend that children be restrained in car safety seats specially designed for them. Babies should be restrained in rear-facing seats because they support their weak necks during a crash. When children grow out of the rear-facing seat, they can be restrained in forward-facing seats. When they outgrow forward facing seats, they can be restrained in a combination of booster seats and seatbelts. The booster seat ensures that the seatbelt rests correctly across the chest and hips. When children become too big to use a booster seat, they can wear seatbelts.

The Concerning Reality in Canada

In Canada, most children ride in cars restrained in the appropriate car seat, as recommended by experts. Unfortunately, researchers at the University of Windsor estimate that a whopping 50% of kids who should be using a booster seat, ride in cars restrained only with a seatbelt. How do we encourage parents to restrain their children in booster seats?

Initiatives to promote booster seat use in Canada fall in at least one of three categories, known as the Three E’s of Injury Prevention: Engineering, Enforcement, and Education. Engineering initiatives have attempted to increase booster seat use, by creating devices that are portable, easy to install, and attractive to children. This is the case for Clek, an award-winning booster seat developed by Canadian researchers and funded by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the Canadian automobile industry, through the AUTO21 Network of Centres of Excellence program.

Enforcement initiatives include making booster seats mandatory. In this area, Canada has seen some progress: in 2005, only two provinces had legislation mandating the use of booster seats, but today booster seat law is in place in all jurisdictions, except the province of Alberta and the territories.

Education initiatives make up the bulk of prevention efforts to promote booster seat use and try to change caregivers’ behaviours. National organizations dedicated to educating parents include Transport Canada (which provides online information for parents), Parachute (a charity organization dedicated to reducing the burden of injuries in Canada), and the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada (an organization that gathers and certifies child seat educators from all provinces). 

Looking Forward

My research seeks to improve the way we communicate the importance of booster seats by correcting the misconception that seatbelts are meant to prevent ejection. I believe that a majority of Canadian parents do not use booster seats because they are more concerned about their child being hurled through the windshield. Since they believe injuries to children riding in cars result from ejection, they believe that seatbelts alone are enough to protect their child. To address this misconception, my research examines if parents become more willing to use booster seats after they learn that seatbelts actually redirect crash forces to stronger parts of the body.

IMPORTANT: if you are a parent, please DO NOT USE THIS BLOG TO MAKE DECISIONS REGARDING CAR SAFETY SEATS FOR YOUR CHILD. For specific advice and information, please visit the Transport Canada website, which provides a list of national and local resources, including car seat education events also called car seat clinics.