In Ontario, all drivers — including visiting drivers — must make sure that if their child is under the age of eight, they must be properly secured in the correct child car seat or booster seat. But how can you be sure if your child is ready to transition from a car seat to a booster seat? Or only use a seat belt? In this article, we delve into car seat regulations in Ontario and breakdown the criteria you’ll need to know when thinking of transitioning your child from one to the other.

What are the three stages of car seats?

Understanding each stage of protection for transporting your child is important. There are three established styles, or stages, of car restraints for kids:

Stage 1: Rear-facing seat

This is considered the safest position for young kids as it provides necessary support for their heads and necks. It’s also legally-required across Canada for all children, from birth until reaching a weight of at least 20 lbs. Most jurisdictions having even more stringent requirements!

Stage 2: Forward-facing seat

The child is now seated in the same direction as the rest of the passengers. This type of car seat is equipped with its own five-point harness. The minimum requirement for children to use a forward-facing child car seat when they weigh between 9kg to 18kg (20lb-65lb). This type of seat must always be installed with the rear tether strap in use so that it doesn’t lift away from the car’s seat back in a crash.

Stage 3: Booster seat

A booster seat is used with the car’s built-in seat belt. It’s recommended that you put this off for as long as possible. The seat is no longer doing any of the work to keep your child safe at this stage. Rather, the booster is to ensure that the seat belt follows the correct path.

Proper fit for a booster seat

  1. The shoulder strap needs to sit squarely on the child’s shoulder, not climbing up onto the neck.
  2. The lap belt should fall low across the hips, not higher onto the torso.
  3. Most booster seats require your child to be consistently 40 lbs, 40″ in height and a minimum of four-years-old.
  4. It also requires a proper belt fit, which may not happen until the child is larger.

For best practice, in addition to the car seat regulations in Ontario, your child needs to be old enough to be responsible for their own safety, since they need to sit in the correct position at all times. This includes while sleeping (generally ages 6+).

Child/booster seat (combination seat)

  • Forward-facing only seats with a harness that can eventually convert to a booster.
  • Typical weight range from 22-65 lbs, forward-facing, 40-110 lbs for booster.

Booster seats

  • Designed to properly position the adult-sized seat belt in the correct locations over a child’s body.
  • Booster seats do not include a harness.
  • Maturity is important. A child must be able to sit properly 100% of the time while in the car (including while sleeping).

Seat belt – youths 

Seat belts are designed to protect older children and adults. Once a child can sit against the back of the vehicle seat with their legs bent comfortably over the edge, and they can maintain this position for the entire trip, they are ready to move from the booster seat to the vehicle seat belt. Transport Canada recommends kids stay in the back seat until age 13.

Booster seat or seat belt                

A booster seat raises your child up so that the adult seat belt works more effectively by properly positioning the seat belt across the child’s body. Booster seats protect them against a serious injury 3 ½ times better than seat belts alone. A lap and shoulder combination belt must be used with all booster seats. Your child’s head must be supported by the top of the booster seat, vehicle seat or headrest. The shoulder strap needs to be centred across the child’s collarbone and the lap portion of the seat belt needs to be low on the child’s hips touching the tops of their thighs.

Car seat regulations in Ontario require children to use a booster seat:

  • If the child is in between the weights of 18kg to 36kg (40lb-80lb),
  • When standing less than 145cm tall (4’9”), and
  • Is under the age of eight-years-old;
FACT: 30% of kids in booster seats did not meet the 40-pound weight minimum.

Your child can graduate from a car seat to using a seat belt on their own when one of the following conditions are met. Keep in mind, these are only minimum guidelines, and it is up to you and your child’s discretion on when you both feel comfortable to transition to using only the seat belt:

  • Your child turns eight-years-old, OR
  • If your child weighs 80 lbs, OR
  • He/she is 145cm (4’9”) tall or taller
FACT: 52% of kids in seat belts did not fit safely and still should have been in a booster seat.

What is the five-step test?

Best practice is to keep your child in a booster until the seat belt fits well without it. This generally occurs once a child is 4’9” tall and around age 11. 

The ‘Five-Step Test’ is an indicator that your child is ready for the belt-only. The test should be done in every seating position of each car, as it can be different.

  • Can your child sit all the way back in the vehicle seat?
  • Do your child’s knees bend easily at the edge of the vehicle seat?
  • Can the shoulder belt lay flat against the collarbone?
  • Does the lap belt sit low on the upper thighs?
  • Can the child remain seated for the whole trip, even while sleeping?

Learn more about when to make the switch here.

Tips to keep your kids safe

In order to make sure that your child is protected while travelling in a motor vehicle, Kidsplaysafe.ca has compiled a few tips to help you:

  • Use the right car seat for the child’s height, weight and development.
  • Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions and read your vehicle owner’s manual for correct child car seat installation and use.
  • Be sure to secure the child correctly. Make sure harness straps are flat and snug. Always use a tether strap with a forward-facing child car seat.
  • Keep children away from all active front air bags. Children 12 years of age and under are safest in the back seat.
  • Every child car seat and booster seat sold in Canada has an expiry or useful life date on it, and should not be used if it has passed the date.
DYK: Driving with your child in a car when they are not in the proper seat for their age, height and weight can result in a fine of up to $1,000?

Final thoughts on car seat regulations in Ontario

While transitioning from car set to booster to seat belt are huge milestones in your child’s development, don’t rush them into the next stage too quickly.  Adhere to recommendations regarding height, weight and behaviour models to keep your child the safest they can be. Also, when purchasing your car seat, look for the label with the national safety mark on it.

This means that the seat and manufacturer meet the government guidelines for safety. While you do not need to register the individual seat with a governing body, you should make sure that you register with the manufacturer so that you are notified of any recalls.

More information on car seat regulations in Ontario

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