When can a Child Ride in the Front Seat of a Car?
By Stephanie Jarrett, Everything Arlington
My newly turned 11-year-old has been dying to ride in the front seat for several years now. We just got a brand-new Kia Telluride, and she can’t wait to manage the music we listen to via Apple CarPlay and heat or cool her seat herself, depending on the weather. While it seems like just yesterday she was an 18-month-old resting in a rear-facing child car seat, and then a 4-year-old in a high-back booster, she is now 11 years old and 5’2” tall, with a head full of opinions and knowledge about many topics, including why she should be able to sit in the front seat of our new car. After all, each day at school drop off, we watch a number of her friends exit the front seat of their parents’ vehicles. Before I gave her an answer either way about riding in the front seat, I sat down to research when my kiddo could legally and safely ride in the front seat of a car.
When Can My Child Ride in the Front Seat of a Car?
The short answer is kids can ride in the front seat of the car after they turn 13. Kids aged 12 and younger should always sit in the back seat of a vehicle. Children should be in a booster seat until approximately age 9, when they are tall enough and weigh enough to sit in a seat facing forward, with both feet flat on the floor in front of them. Until a child reaches 4 feet 9 inches in height, that child should be in a booster. Children should not ride in the front seat until they are at least 13 years of age and 4’9” tall, according to the CDC.
Why Is the Backseat the Best for Kids 12 and Younger?
According to Car Seats for the Littles, there are two main reasons that the backseat is best for growing bodies.
- The backseat is actually the safest seat in the car for anyone. According to Business Insider, the rear middle seat in any vehicle is the safest spot in the car in the case of a car accident. The back seat is safer for all passengers than the front seat, which is why children should always be in back.
- Passenger-side airbags are not designed to protect prepubescent bodies. Children are smaller and lighter than adults, meaning they are more susceptible to severe injury from a deployed air bag in the event of a crash.
Proper Safety Restraints for Each Age (According to the CDC)
Rear-facing car seat: A child should be restrained in a rear-facing car seat from birth until at least 2 years of age, although doing so until at least age 4 is strongly encouraged. An infant carrier can be used for a child up until about 12 months of age/one year old.
Forward-facing car seat: A forward-facing car seat should be used once a child outgrows his rear-facing car seat until at least age 5.
Booster seat: A booster seat should be used after a child outgrows his forward-facing car seat and until an adult seat belt fits the child properly. For this to happen, a child must be at least 4’9” tall and typically between the ages of 9 and 12.
Regular seat belt: a seat belt should be used by everyone in the vehicle throughout every trip. The shoulder strap should be placed properly across a rider’s chest and not looped behind his neck.
What If My Child Is Big for Their Age?
My children have always been tall for their age. We always joke that they will never know what it’s like to be petite. I stand at 5’8” tall and my husband at 6’3”— so it’s safe to say my children carry tall genes! Because my children have always been in the 90th percentile or above for their height, I always assumed my children would be able to ride in the front seat of a car a little sooner than their shorter friends. I learned several years ago that I was wrong, however, because children’s’ bodies all develop at about the same rate. So, whether your 11-year-old is 4’7” or 5’5” tall (we have friends at both heights at this age!), her skeletal structure is at the same place, developmentally, as other children her age. This means she needs to be placed in the proper child restraint for her age, not just for her height or weight. It’s interesting and relevant to know that skeletal structure is what scientists use to identify and age remains. This is how they can determine the age of a skeleton, by the stage of development the bones!
Child Safety Restraint Laws by State
Although there are many sources that state children should not ride in the front seat of a car until (at least) the age of 13, the law does vary by state. In many states, not restraining a child properly in a moving vehicle is a ticket-able offense. Almost all states have car seat requirements that vary by age. To find out your state’s laws about child safety seat, see the IIHS interactive map here.
After all my research, I ultimately told my daughter she needed to wait to ride in the front seat. Although I have been known to let her ride in the front seat for short trips around town, we determined that, for longer trips, she is still safest in the back. It’s a struggle to enforce when legally, in Texas, where we live, she is able to ride in the front seat. My husband and I decided that we needed to take into account CDC recommendations and not just the law, and we hope every parent will do equivalent research when it comes to car safety and their kids.
If you are headed out for a road trip or long drive, make sure you have your child properly restrained (and shop for must-have car accessories here!) to maximize their safety. Car accidents are still the leading cause of death in children (according to the CDC), and, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, 59% of child safety seats are installed incorrectly. If you’re not sure if you have your child in the proper safety seat, or if you aren’t sure if your car seat is properly installed, visit SeatCheck.org to find an inspection station to check over your car seat. Do what you can to maximize your child’s safety in every motor vehicle.
If car seat safety is something you’re passionate about, did you know you can become a “certified technician” and help educate others on the importance of child restraint safety? Find out more here.