Oct. 13, 2011 -- Parents of young children now have a better selection than ever of car booster seats that offer good protection. These seats are usually used with children age 4 to 8, and they're designed to raise up those smaller bodies so they fit properly into the car seatbelts.
The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined more than 80 models, and found that 31 of them would correctly position a seatbelt in any type of vehicle: an SUV, minivan or car. That's up from 21 top-rated seats last year, and nine the year before.
"We're encouraged that there are more top-rated seats available for parents," Anne McCartt, senior vice president of the Insurance Institute, told ABC News, "We think a lot of that is that manufactures are paying attention to our ratings and modifying their seats or introducing new seats that do a good job."
The seats should work to position lap belts across the upper thigh, not across the child's abdomen. And shoulder straps should fit across the middle of the shoulder, not over the arm or neck. Studies have shown booster seats can reduce the likelihood of injuries in a crash by 45 percent.
The institute's ratings are not based on crash tests but on measurements. "We will take a 6-year-old dummy," says McCartt, "and we specially outfit it and we place it in a booster, installing it according to the manufacturer guidelines." The institute then fastens four different types of lap-shoulder belts, representing what's found in today's vehicles, to see how well they fit.
And it turns out you don't have to spend an arm and a leg to protect those little arms and legs.
"Price is not an issue," says the institute's McCartt. You can get a Best Bets [seat] for less than $15. So you can't tell by looking at a seat, you can't tell with the price of the seat. Really, you need to look at our ratings to try to take the guesswork out of choosing a booster that will predictably, consistently do a good job."
The group's 31 Best Bets include booster seats with backs, and booster seats with just bases. They even include a new inflatable seat called the BubbleBum, designed for families on the go. One company, Harmony Juvenile Products, located in Canada, had all five of the seats it manufactures on the top-rated list. Seats by Britax, Evenflo, Graco and SafetyFirst also made the list.
Not all seats made the grade. Six of them did not perform well, and the institute says it can't recommend them. Those are four models made by Evenflo – the Case, Express, Generations 65 and Sightseer, and two Safety First seats – the All-In-One and the Alpha Omega Elite.
Dorel Juvenile Group, the maker of SafetyFirst seats told ABC News in a statement that "While the IIHS report focuses solely on belt fit and not on crashworthiness, we stand behind all of our seats as they have been proven to protect children in real-world situations and real-world crashes."
The company also said it designs and builds its car seats with "advanced protection for children in the event of a crash" and noted the IIHS awarded top ratings to five of the company's seats.
Safety experts say it's still a struggle to get some parents to use any booster seat. Laws vary from state to state, with only 29 states and the District of Columbia requiring child restraints for those up to age 7, and just two states, Wyoming and Tennessee, covering kids up to age 8. A 2009 roadside observational survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration found that just over half of all four to 7-year-olds were properly restrained.
But for those parents who do put their child in a booster seat, there's now some help making sure the seat you choose offers the protection you want.