When Is It Safe for Kids to Sit in the Front Seat?

Medically reviewed by Laura Marusinec, MD on March 29, 2016Written by Rena Goldman on March 29, 2016
Front Seat

As children get older, sitting up front with mom or dad might start to seem really exciting. They may see a big brother or sister do it, or even friends their own age. But when is it actually safe to allow your child to ride shotgun?

The general consensus is that a child should be at least age 13 before riding in the front seat. But different states have different guidelines. There may also be times when you have a full car and can’t avoid having one child riding up front.

Read on to learn more about how you can keep your children safe in the car.

Safety Concerns

Motor vehicle crashes are a leading cause of death for children in the United States. In 2013, 638 children ages 12 years and younger died in motor vehicle crashes, and more than 127,000 were injured. Many of these tragedies could have been prevented with proper seating precautions.

Are Airbags Safe for Kids?

For adults, airbags can mean the difference between life and death. For children, they can mean serious injury, or even death. That’s because children aren’t tall enough for the airbag to cushion them the way it’s meant to.

Airbags are designed to prevent you from hitting the dashboard or front windshield. They have sensors that tell them how bad the crash impact is, and whether or not they should inflate.

When an airbag deploys, it comes out at very high speeds. If an adult is seated properly and wearing a safety belt, an airbag can be an effective tool to prevent injury. But a child sitting in that same seat may get hit in the head or neck by the airbag. They can suffer serious injuries as a result.

For these reasons, the American Academy of Pediatrics advises parents that the back seat is always the safest option for children under age 13.

Guidelines by Age

Vehicle safety guidelines for kids are based on age, height, and weight. It’s important to know what type of seat and restraints your child should be using at each stage. Check with your child’s doctor on the safest option if your child has special healthcare needs.

Newborn to Age 2

Infants and toddlers should be buckled into a rear-facing car seat in the back seat. When your child grows out of the height or weight limits to that seat, it’s usually safe to switch to a front-facing car seat in the back seat.

Ages 2 to 5

Young children ages 2 to 5 should be buckled into a front-facing car seat in the back of the vehicle. They should stay in this seat until age 5, or until they reach the height or weight limit listed on the car seat model.

Ages 5 to 12

Children in this age range should be buckled into some type of booster seat in the back seat. They should stay in their booster seat until they’re big enough to properly fit a regular seatbelt. In other words, their weight and/or height should be above the booster seat’s limits. It’s usually recommended to use a booster seat until at least age 8.

In order for the seatbelt to fit properly, the bottom strap should rest comfortably on the top of the thighs. If it’s on the stomach, the child isn’t tall enough to go without a booster. The shoulder strap should fall in the middle of the chest, and not across the neck. The recommended height for proper seat belt fit is 57 inches.

Exceptions

You should always try to plan trips so each child can be safely secured in the back seat, but things happen. There may be times when you’re driving carpool or trying to pack the whole family into one car. Having a child under 13 in the front isn’t always avoidable, but be aware of the risks when making a decision about your child’s safety in the car.

Here’s what to do if you have a child under 13 in the front seat:

  • You should be aware of how your car’s airbag functions. Some vehicles have a way to switch off the airbag, leaving it disabled. This is usually not recommended unless your child has special healthcare needs, as it can put others at risk.
  • Have the child sit in the middle seat between two adults so they’re not right in front of an airbag.
  • Move the front seat as far back as possible. Keep in mind that this might decrease your child’s chance of injury, but it won’t prevent something from happening.
  • Never place a child in a rear-facing car seat in the front seat if the airbag is active.

The Takeaway

A child’s safety should come before their desires. Don’t worry about catching some attitude when you deny the front seat request.

If you’re wondering when your kid can sit up front, it’s usually a safe bet to follow the age 13 rule. But you should still be aware of your state’s specific guidelines. You can check them through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Not only do these guidelines keep your child safe, but they can also come with a fine for disobeying them. Depending on the state, your first offence could range from a fine of $10 to $500.

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