Canada's Ontario Provincial Police made headlines when they posted on Twitter that they had pulled over a local father for using a case of beer as a booster seat for his 2-year-old child, who was thankfully unharmed.
After a member of the public called in a traffic complaint about the father, he was charged with "failing to ensure his child was properly seat-belted," the police reported. Because the case of beer was still factory sealed, the dad was not charged for having alcohol within reach of the driver, the OPP added.
Though the incident made a groan-worthy set-up for a slew of jokes about Canada and beer, the situation could have resulted in tragedy, car seat safety expert and pediatrician Dr. Alisa Baer of The Car Seat Lady told TODAY Parents — especially because the toddler was seated in the front seat of the vehicle. Safety experts recommend children do not sit in the front seat until they are at least 13 years old.
"The only thing the dad gets points for is having a seat belt on the child," Baer said. "Sitting on beer increases the child's risk of injury, as the beer will fly out from under the child in the case of a crash, leaving the seat belt way too loose and likely causing the child to be ejected out of the seat belt. The front seat puts the child at risk from injury from the airbag, which is not designed to protect a 2-year-old."
How and when to use a booster seat, for real
Not only was the child in this incident too young to sit in the front seat, but also too young to use a booster seat at all. Before they transition from a car seat, which uses a 5-point harness to restrain the child, to a booster seat that uses the car's own shoulder and lap belt as restraints, children should be "at least 5, at least 40 pounds, and mature enough to sit properly in the booster for the trip — meaning they're not slouching, they're not leaning over, and they're not messing with the seat belt," Baer said.
In fact, the most common issues surrounding booster seats is putting children in them too early or taking children out of booster seats too soon, before they are big enough to sit in a regular seat and use a seat belt properly and safely.
The Ontario Provincial Police cited the law in their post, which requires children under 40 pounds to be in a car seat and children under the age of 8, 80 pounds, and the height of 4 feet, 9 inches sit in a booster seat. But those numbers are somewhat arbitrary, Baer explained.
"'Eight and 80' are in place because when you legislate, you need something that a police officer can ask a parent. Age and weight have no relevance to whether a child is ready to ride without a booster or not," Baer said.
Booster seats and beyond: Keeping kids safe in cars
Some 8 and 9-year-olds should not ride without a booster seat, she said. "The whole goal of a booster seat is to help a child's body sit properly on the vehicle seat and the seat belt fit properly on the child's body, specifically on the hip bones, across the chest bone, and on the collarbone."
Baer uses a 5-step guide to determine if a child is ready to ride without a booster seat. It does not ask the child's age, weight, or height. Instead, it asks if the child can sit against the back of the seat with their knees bending naturally over the edge of the seat with the seat belt lying properly across their shoulders and hipbones — and if the child can maintain that position for the entire duration of the ride. As any parent can attest, that last point will vary widely with the individual child.
So what can a parent do with a 2-year-old and a case of beer if they found themselves without a proper child safety seat? "The first idea would be not to put the child in the car," said Baer.
"Beyond that, if the child has to go in the car and that's all you have available, the child needs to ride in the backseat, not sitting on anything that is not an approved child restraint, wearing the seat belt properly, with the shoulder belt across the chest. Even on a 2-year-old, putting the shoulder belt under the arm or behind the back makes a bad situation much worse," she said.