Age 13. Bam. Done!
The child in the photo below is too young to sit in the front seat. He would be safer to be in a booster seat in the back seat of the car. It is safest — and best practice — for children to not sit in the front seat until they are 13 years old.
I say “most likely” your car manufacturer because I haven’t personally checked the passenger visors in every car to see if they ALL have a warning label like those shown here.
Not everyone follows this recommendation
We notice a lot of children who are obviously not 13 sitting in the front seat. This is especially noticeable during our elementary school drop off and pick up.
When the child is so short you can just see the top of his head over the dash in the front seat, not only should he still be in the back seat but he should also in a seat belt positioner.
We get it. It’s hard. Even though we told our 11-year-old he’ll need to wait until 13, he still asks to sit up front. And I know some of his friend’s parents allow their children to sit in the front. Most of his friends are allowed to.
As a matter of fact, nine out of 10 parents allow their children to use the vehicle seat belt before they can properly pass the 5-step seat belt fit test. So it’s no surprise they also allow their child to sit in the front seat before the recommended age of 13.
And while some states do have laws which require children to sit in the back seat, most do not. Of those that do, many only go up to age 8.
Which states have laws about when can children sit in the front seat?
California, Georgia, Hawaii, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Tennessee laws require children to be in the rear seat properly restrained until age 8.
Delaware law doesn’t allow children to sit in the front seat until they are 12 years old or 65″ tall.
Maine law doesn’t allow children to sit in the front seat until the child is age 12 or 100 pounds.
Washington law doesn’t allow children to sit in the front seat of the car until age 13.
Puerto Rico law requires children to remain in the back seat of the car until age 12.
(We now have this bit of info included in our list of state car seat laws.)
Once again occupant restraint laws are commonly the minimum standard to follow as they are typically a compromise between “best practice” and what lawmakers think their constituents will tolerate.
Why is it important to follow the recommendation?
We often hear, “but I sat up front and I’m fine.” That’s true. Most of us adults did sit in the front seat when we were children. Some of us adults sat in all kinds of places that would be considered compromising to our safety these days. For instance, because of lack of seating, I often was squished into the hatchback of my mom’s Mazda RX-7 while my brother, only 2 years older, was in the front seat. And Greg often shared the cargo space of their station wagon with one of his 8 siblings.
A lot of things have changed since then such as the number of cars on the road, the speed at which they travel, an increase in miles driven per family and increase availability of passenger air bags. Most importantly what has changed is our knowledge of crash dynamics and occupant safety.
3 reasons to wait for a child to sit in the front seat
1. Location, location, location. The back seat is the safest place for your children — actually safer for everyone regardless of age, height or weight — because most crashes occur in the front of the car and the back seat is farthest from this impact. So in general there is a lower risk of injury for back seat passengers.
2. Air bags are designed for a 140-pound man wearing a seat belt. (I know fellow women under 140 pounds, we don’t fit the ideal range either, kind of like seat belts are not designed for women — much less pregnant women. But what are car manufacturers to do? They have to use some average.)
Airbags are not designed for children who are much lighter and smaller. As such airbags can cause serious injury to children below the height requirement by hitting them in the face, chest, neck or head at speeds of between 90 to 210 miles per hour.
Nationwide, more than 100 children have been killed by air bags in recent years. And many of these deaths were in slow-speed collisions that should have been minor.
Download our cheat sheet to learn the 4+ stages of car seats and which one your child is in.
Also older children are more likely to have the maturity to stay sitting properly and keep their body out of the deployment zone of the airbag. When properly seated and wearing their seat belts, teens are generally big enough for the air bag to be of some benefit.
3. Bone development. Kids may be as big as adults on the outside but their skeletal system is still developing. Bones develop strength with age, not size.
According to a study in Paediatr Child Health, children who are 12 years old or younger have iliac crests that are less developed than those of adults. (The iliac crest is the part of the hip bone which keeps the seat belt properly positioned on the hips.) This can allow the seat belt to ride up over the abdomen, causing seat belt syndrome.
Children do not have fully developed breast bones or sternum, yet. While this may not fully develop until a few years later, waiting until at least 13 gives it more time to get stronger. Without a mature skeletal system, a child in at increased risk of injury, especially if the child is also in the deployment zone of an airbag.
Are there any exceptions to the rule?
Generally speaking you can have a child sit in the front seat if all the rear seats are occupied by other children. For example — and much to my dismay — Grandma’s car only has two seat belts in the back seat so my 11-year-old gets to set up front when she drives all 3 of our children. He, of course, is super happy about this. Luckily he 5-stepped some time ago and is mere inches from my height.
Other exceptions may be if your car has no back seat or if your back seat has lap-only belts and no shoulder restraints and your child rides in a booster, he’s safer in the front seat properly secured in a booster than in the back not in a booster.
If you do end up with a child in the front seat, turn the airbag off or take it to the dealership to have them disable it. Some vehicles have “smart” airbags which can detect the weight in the front seat and automatically turn off if the weight is low enough to not trigger it. Also push the front seat back as far as possible, especially if you cannot turn off the airbag.
In the end, you are the parent. You can make the choice to tell your child safety trumps their being “cool”.
We want to know… At what age did you, or do you plan to, let your children sit in the front? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2021 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.
We originally published this post in August 2017. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.