A record number of booster seats have won the designation of "Best Bets" in ratings by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety this year.
In the ratings released yesterday, 31 seats were rated that highly because they correctly position a vehicle safety belt on a typical 4- to 8-year-old in almost any car, minivan, or SUV, the nonprofit research organization said.
Another 5 seats were rated as "Good Bets," meaning they provide acceptable belt fit in most vehicles, the IIHS said. Six boosters were not recommended because they don't provide proper belt fit, and consumers are advised to avoid them.
The best bets included several models from Britax, EvenFlo, Graco, Harmony, Recaro and Safey 1st.
Among booster manufacturers, Harmony Juvenile Products continues to be a standout, the IIHS said. All five seats the Canadian company currently makes are on the best bets list.
The seats that were not recommended included seats made by Evenflo (the models were the Sightseer, Generations 65, Express and Chase) and by Safety 1st (the Alpha Omega Elite and the All-in-One). [See the full list of booster seats rated by the IIHS ]
Booster seats are for children who have outgrown forward-facing child restraints, the IIHS said. A booster should elevate a child and route the lap and shoulder belts, which are designed for adults, to the correct position to restrain a child during a crash.
The lap belt should lie flat and on top of a child's upper thighs, not higher up on the abdomen, the IIHS said. The shoulder belt should fit across the middle of a child's shoulder. If it falls off the shoulder, or rests on the neck, a child might move the belt behind the back or under an arm.
Some boosters reroute the belts better than others, the IIHS said, but consumers may not be able tell a good booster from a bad one just by comparing features or prices.
Engineers evaluated 62 booster models in the latest round of ratings; 21 show up twice in the lists because the are dual-use seats, meaning they can work as highback or backless boosters.
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. The IIHS advised parents 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. [See pictures of proper belt placement ]
The focus of the Institute's ratings is belt fit, not crash performance, and no crash tests are conducted as part of the evaluation, the IIHS said. Engineers used a test dummy representing an average-size 6 year-old to assess belt fit.
In 2008 the IIHS designated just 10 boosters as best bets. There were 21 best bets in last year's ratings, the institute said, because manufacturers began using the institute's test protocols as they designed and updated their seats.
Prices for the top-rated seats range from less than $15 to several hundred dollars, the IIHS said.
Pass it on: The best booster seats for kids ensure that the lap belt passes over a child's thighs, not his abdomen, and fits across the middle of his shoulder.