Booster seats - are you breaking the law?
By Lisa Galliers
Confused about the law on booster seats? Booster seat rules changed in 2017, but these seats are still perfectly legal if used correctly.
UK law states that children must use a child car seat until they're 12 years old or 135cm/4ft 5in tall, whichever comes first.
Booster seats, or booster cushions, can be legally used as car seats for children, but the rules differ depending on whether products are old or news. Some booster cushions are approved for use with children weighing 15kg or more, but any new products on the market can only be used with children who weigh 22kg and are 125cm in height.
Find out more about car seat regulations - car seat law in the UK
Read on to find out when booster seats can be used and why we don’t recommend them – plus all you need to know about high-backed booster seats including our top five, and why Isofix works differently with Group 2/3 seats for older children.
From 1 March 2017 the rules on backless booster seats changed. These seats can now only be made for children taller than 125cm and weighing more than 22kg.
However, backless booster seats made and bought before this date are still legal and approved for use by children weighing between 15kg and 36kg. So, if you own a backless booster seat bought before this date you can still use it for a child within this weight range.
Shops can also sell backless booster seats that are approved for use by children weighing between 15kg and 36kg, so you’ll need to check the label when you buy a seat.
And don’t believe what you read elsewhere. Which? child car seat expert Lisa Galliers says: ‘Since we first reported on the expected rules change for booster seats, there have been a lot of confusing reports, especially on social media, about the changes.
‘Some we’ve spotted have been incorrect or inaccurate. We’ve seen posts saying booster seats will be illegal for a certain age or weight, or implying there are no new regulations regarding booster seats, which is confusing for consumers.
‘To be clear, the new rules only apply to any new products entering the market.’
‘Since our story back in April 2016 when we first reported the upcoming changes, we’ve seen a lot more people talking about child car seats and it’s really opened up the discussion about the safest way to transport children, which is extremely positive.’
Booster seats are backless cushions that can be used as a child car seat.
A booster seat can help to raise a child's body to a height suitable for use with the adult seatbelt. Some have ‘horns’ that help the car’s adult seat belt to sit across your child’s tummy.
You can buy booster seats that are simply the cushion part. But some Group 2/3 car seats also convert to a booster cushion for Group 3 mode. Essentially, this removes the protective car seat sides (Group 2) and turns the seat into a booster cushion.
Booster seats are temptingly cheap – some start from as little as £6 – and there’s no doubt they’re convenient. But while using any seat is better than using none, booster seats offer very little protection in a crash, particularly if you’re hit from the side.
Our car seat experts and many others believe these backless cushions are not the best way to transport children, and recommend using a high-backed booster seat instead, whenever possible.
The booster seats we've tested have not proved as safe in our crash tests as high-backed booster seats with a full-length back and 'wings', as these provide extra protection for the head and chest in a side-impact crash.
Find those that came top in our crash tests in our car seat reviews
15%Parents who incorrectly think a booster cushion offers the same protection as a high-backed booster seat
A worrying number of parents (15%), believe that a backless booster seat offers the same protection as a high-backed booster seat – but this isn’t the case.
Booster cushions raise children up, but some struggle with keeping the shoulder strap of a three-point adult seatbelt in the right place on a child and provide virtually no side-impact protection if you’re involved in a side-on collision.
There is an argument by some backless booster manufacturers that many modern cars have side airbags or other safety features which should help protect the occupants. Our child car seat experts disagree. Not every car has added safety features. There’s also a risk that a young child sitting on a booster cushion could easily wriggle out of position – we’ve seen this happen in our fitting tests. What’s more, a young child may not be tall enough for their head to reach the side airbags.
We’ve tested a handful of multi-group seats that convert to a backless booster seat in Group 3 mode and these are Don't Buys because of their poor crash test results, especially for side-impact crashes. A good result in any other part of our crash tests cannot compensate for this.
Some booster cushions have performed so badly in our crash tests, the results meant the score was instantly downgraded to a 0% Don't Buy – our lowest possible score.
Don't Buy car seats - find out which car seats to avoid
When we surveyed 7,000 parents in 2018, we discovered that 41% of children aged 10 to 12, who may legally be required to use a child car seat, don’t use one at all.
A booster seat is better than no seat. But the change to booster seat rules should help keep older children in high-backed car seats for longer and may encourage parents to swap their backless booster cushion for a high-backed booster seat instead.
However, we can see that a backless booster seat is an appealing option for parents who may have to try to squeeze a third child into the middle seat in the back of a car, occasionally, or for a short journey in a taxi.
If you’re travelling with your child and do need to use a backless booster cushion - maybe you’re heading off on holiday and want one to use in a taxi to the airport, or maybe you regularly give a child a lift to school - then read on for tips below on how to use one:-
- Avoid using a backless booster cushion with young children if at all possible, especially those as young as 15kg (around three years old). While some seats are approved for use with such light children, our experts don’t think they offer the best protection.
- Use the booster cushion in the middle back seat of a vehicle if you can. This is considered by many as the safest position in a vehicle. You could sit either side of your child.
- A backless booster cushion with 'horns', to help hold the adult seat belt in place across your child’s tummy, is considered a better choice by some experts.
- Remember, it's illegal not to use a child car seat not to mention unsafe.
Mifold – is it safe? Read our review and find out before you splash out.
When your toddler reaches 18kg (usually around four years old), or is taller than 105cm, you'll need to swap to the next stage of child car seat - a Group 2/3 seat. This is what’s known as a high-backed booster seat.
These child car seats are approved for use for children from 15kg-36kg, which is around three-and-a-half-years-old all the way up to 12 years of age (around 36kg, or 135cm in height).
There's no need to swap to a Group 2/3 seat until your child has outgrown his or her toddler/Group 1 seat. This will happen when your child reaches around 18kg, or is too tall for the seat (i-Size-approved seats usually go up to 105cm). You'll be able to see this when his or her eyes are level with the top of the seat.
Some parents prefer to keep their child in a toddler seat for as long as possible because he or she is kept secured in the seat by a five-point harness, rather than swapping to a Group 2/3 seat, which uses the car's adult seat belt to keep a child in place. Some may also be using an extended rear-facing seat, which will keep your child rear-facing until 105cm.
Our car seat experts recommend using the lowest group seat for as long as possible.
There are some seats available which have extended harness use, plus other seats which also have innovative ways of dealing with this issue.
Isofix and booster seats
Isofix connectors on a high-backed booster seat don’t work in the same way as they do for baby or toddler car seats. The connectors are used mainly to keep the seat stable and securely in place when it’s not in use, so it doesn’t fly forward and hit you if you have to brake suddenly or are involved in a crash and the kids aren't on board.
It’s the adult seat belt in a Group 2/3 seat that helps distributes the force of a crash away from a child’s body. Some seats in this category have Isofit connectors, rather than Isofix, They're similar but are more like soft latches, or hooks which attach to the anchor points in your car.
Below, you can see our pick of five high-scoring and recently tested high-backed booster seats.
Remember, not all car seats fit in all cars, so make sure the car seat you choose fits before you buy it.
Only logged-in Which? members can see the results and read full reviews of each model. If you're not a Which? member, you can get instant access by joining Which? today.
Top five high-backed booster seats
We've kept this child car seat in our Top 5 for 2018 as it was our top-scoring Best Buy high-backed booster seat for 2017. It's a smart-looking high-backed booster seat, with good overall crash protection. It's easy to use and install without much risk of getting it wrong. Isofix connectors help keep it secure in the car, and your child is held in place by the car's seatbelt. It has a range of fab features to help keep your child comfy on their journey, including a spacious seat, lots of padding, and large side wings that automatically adjust as you move the headrest upwards.
This eye-catching Group 2/3 high-backed booster seat has plenty of padding, side-impact protection and Isofix connectors to help keep it secure in your car. It's suitable for use with children from 15kg to 36kg (around four to 12 years old) and comes with plenty of adjustment features for your growing child. It's one of our latest Best Buys for 2018. Read our full test review to see why it earns a place in our Top 5.
On a budget? This high-backed booster seat is among the cheapest Best Buy Group 2/3 car seats currently available. The level of overall crash protection is good, and it's straightforward to install and easy to use. Plus you can adapt it to comfortably fit your growing child, so it more than earns a place in our current Top 5 for 2018. It's designed to grow with your child, and uses Isofix connectors to securely attach it to your car. Read our full test review for more details.
With its brightly coloured padding, this lightweight Group 2/3 high-backed booster seat comes with a host of the latest safety features to help keep your older child safe and secure. If you're not keen on swapping your child from a harness to a car seat that uses a seatbelt, this car seat comes with an innovative solution that may help. Even though it was tested in May 2016, we've included it in our top five for 2018 for this reason. Log in to find out which innovative seat this is and read our crash test results.
With plenty of adjustable options, including a height-adjustable headrest and varying seat depths to give growing children plenty of support and space, this high-scoring Group 2/3 high-backed booster seat was tested in 2018 and earns a place in our top five as it's almost a Best Buy. It's easy to install, too. Isofix and belt installation possible. Read the results of our crash tests in our full review.
How Which? tests child car seats
In our unique tests, each car seat endures a front crash, equivalent to a head-on collision at around 40mph, and a side crash equivalent to a car crashing into another one at 30mph. We repeat the crashes again and again, with the seat fixed in the different modes it can be used.
We can go through as many as 20 samples of the same seat to get the final score.
Crash tests Our experts have specially designed the crash tests, making them more demanding than the legal minimum standard requires. They’re derived from Euro NCAP – it carries out crash testing on cars to show how well cars protect occupants in severe accidents. We do a similar thing for car seats and feel this more accurately reflects what could happen in a real crash.
Crash test dummies These are wired up to record the crash forces on the most vulnerable parts of the body and accurately indicate the risk of injury a real child could have in a crash.
Multi-group seats If a car seat can be used in a number of different ways and attached by different methods (Isofix or car’s seat belt), we crash test it in each format.
Find out more about how Which? tests child car seats.