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When can a child sit in the front seat of the car?

when can a child sit in front seat

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.

when can a child sit in front seat
When can children sit in the front seat of the car?

The Centers for Disease Control, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and, most likely, even your air bag and car manufacturer recommend keeping children under age 13 in the back seat.

I say “most likely” your car manufacturer because I haven’t personally checked the passenger visors in every car to see if they ALL a warning label shown here.

Obviously 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 in the front seat, not only should he still be in the back seat but 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 him to. Why not, they allow their children to. Many Most of his friends are allowed to.

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Nine out of 10 parents allow their children to use the vehicle seat belt before they can properly pass the 5-step test. 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 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 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.

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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 , 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.

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 belts only and no shoulder restraints and your child rides in a booster, he’s safer in the front seat than in the back.

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.

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.

© belchonock | depositphotos
© amie durocher

45 comments

  1. There are a lot of cars with smart air bags that turn off when a child is in the front seat/

    If the child is in an age/size appropriate booster seat, their seat is all the way back, and the airbags are turned off, why do people still think it’s not safe?

    I really think that has to do with the crash safety of your vehicle and other factors I’d the air bag is off and the child is in a booster. However, I’ve been having a rough time finding any documentation showing children are in more danger in a front seat in this situation.

    Thoughts? Thanks for your help!
    Concerned Grandpa!

    1. As we mention in reason number 1, the back seat would be safer for every occupant in the car for the majority of crashes. So as adults why wouldn’t we want to keep our most precious cargo in the safest place in the car for as long as possible. Most crashes are frontal impact so being in the front seat puts you that much closer to the crash impact. Since, generally, children younger than 13 have less developed bone structure, we advise to keep children younger than 13 as far away from the most likely potential crash impact as possible.

      1. Yup. Many. Would you let your toddler/young child go swimming in the middle of a thunderstorm? No, so why gamble with their lives in other ways? Just saying.

  2. Generally speaking children are safer in the back furthest away from the front when in a frontal impact accident, but I just wanted to point out that being rear-ended also happens which was my case. Thankfully my children were not in the car with me when I was rear-ended at 60 miles an hour on the highway in wet, rainy condition.

  3. if you look at the actual laws it talks about suze and weight. Not age. Why did this article not talk about that at all? What if you have a twenty year old who is trapped in a five year olds body? What happens then? Shall I keep proving my point?

    1. Most car seat laws do talk about size and weight in regard to child restraint use. However, regarding when a child can sit in the front seat (as this post is discussing) most states don’t even have a law. Even if they did, laws are written to address the typical occupant and rarely, if ever, address special circumstances. Without a law in place, you as the parent need to decide the safest mode of transporting your child taking into consideration best practices and your child’s specific needs.

  4. Great information. Thanks.

    Most passengers like to ride “shotgun”. I do. My 8 year old son would like to also. But I think I’ll keep him in the back seat for now. Maybe as a reward I might allow him to sit up front on a short and low risk trip.

      1. And how in the world does being in the back seat benefit anyone when getting t-boned ‘backing’ out of their driveway? Your comment was pointless, freak accidents happen. Ed, I say great plan man. I also will keep my 8 year old in the back seat for the next few years and like you, will reward my son for good behavior and let him sit up front every once in a blue moon on a low risk short drive. Great article Amie. Thanks for the good info.

  5. I have four kids. Three are currently in school and all should be in boosters cause they’re 5,6,8. Problem, I can’t fit three boosters in my back seat. So, I have two boosters and my oldest wedges in between with no booster. He’s short and super skinny so I’m pretty sure he’s still supposed to be in a high back booster. So what should I do? Keep him back there or put him up front in a booster???? Why do they make these car seats so wide??? Even if I can manage to get three seats in there I’d never be able to buckle.

    1. Hi Robbi, It would be best to keep him in the back seat if you can find narrower boosters. Perhaps putting him in a RideSafer vest would free up enough space to keep all 3 in the back with room to buckle. (Fitting 3 in the back row is why we started using the RideSafer vest as opposed to buying a new car.) If you are unable to do that, you can put the oldest/most mature child in the front seat with a booster with the seat pushed back as far as possible to keep the child as far out of the airbag deployment zone as possible.

  6. My kid is bigger than me. My ten-year-old is already 5’4″ and 145 lbs. I let my kid ride up front when my younger niece and nephew are in their boosters in the back seat, and am waiting for the pediatrician’s okay to switch to full time front seat riding.

    1. Even though he is bigger than you, his bones are still developing and getting stronger as he reaches puberty. This is another reason why it’s recommended to keep children younger than 13 in the back seat.

      1. What happens if your 10 year old has already gone through puberty? My 10 year old is 5’2 and 120 lbs, and has been begging me to sit in the front. Is the 13 suggestion because that’s when children usually go through puberty?

        1. The average age of puberty has been getting earlier over time but experts still recommend age 13 to sit in the front seat to give more time for bone development. Bones develop strength with age, not size.

  7. Thanks very much for this information. I am 13 years old and am reading this to make sure that I can sit in the front seat. I live in Michigan so you didn’t mention it but thanks anyway.

  8. i am from Hawaii and I don’t believe there are any laws about the front seat. It is recommended that they do not when they are under 13 or under 4’9″. From hawaii DOT:
    Never put a rear-facing seat in the front seat of a vehicle with active front-passenger airbags.
    Hawaii law requires children under the age of four to ride in a child safety seat and children ages of four through seven to ride in a child safety seat or a booster seat when traveling in a motor vehicle.

  9. In North Dakota, teens get their permits at age 14. To go from sitting in the backseat to behind the wheel in just one year sounds insane. Also, age shouldn’t be the biggest factor, because an airbag isn’t going to affect you differently if you’ve been on this earth a couple years longer, only if you reach a safe height and weight. Everyone develops at different rates and there is no single set of rules that will work for every child. I’m no scientist, but this seems like common sense to me.

  10. I’m only 21 and I’m not a Mom but I have a lot of siblings and they’re all younger than me. One of my 11 year old sisters has been asking me to let her sit in the front seat, and I told her not till she’s 12. Now I’m telling her not till she’s 13 and I’m going to check the 5-step with her today when I pick her up for church so thank you.

  11. What would a good weight and height be to sit in the front? My 13 year old is 4’7″ and weights 66 lbs, I just don’t feel comfortable with him sitting in the front seat.

  12. NHTSB’s April 26, 2016 Rear Seat Safety in Passenger Vehicles document directly contests this idea:

    Advances in front seat design and technologies have created an environment where, for some occupants, such as older children and older adults in certain crash situations, the front seat may be safer than the rear seat. This development is in contrast to the longstanding belief that the rear seat is always the safest position for these occupants.

    1. It is a hypothetical possibility, however, they didn’t do any testing to verify nor did they call for any testing to verify whether or not it is safer. It’s also possible that the back seat having historically been a safer place is still the safer place even with the improvements made in safety for the front seat. The document is calling for car manufacturers to make improvements in the rear seat also.

  13. I am so irritated by my husband’s lack of understanding! My oldest is 9, she’ll be 10 at the end of July, is up to my nose and I am 5’6″ but he thinks she is big and old enough to ride in the front seat!! I’ve sent him NUMEROUS links stating differently but he still ignores them! So, I have come to the conclusion that if he gets caught by the police, its HIS OWN FAULT!!

    1. Yes, safety experts consider keeping children in the back seat at least until age 13 best practice. Yes, statistics show the back seat is generally safer. Yes, body development suggests that children’s bone structure is not ready for the front seat. Yes, impacting the front air bag when not sitting in a proper position is dangerous and children don’t always sit in a proper position. But in most states it is not illegal to allow a child younger than 13 to sit in the front seat. It is illegal to have, let’s call them, in-between children (children out of booster seats but younger than 13) in the front seat in Delaware, Maine, Washington (with some exceptions), Puerto Rico and U.S. Virgin Islands.

  14. I plan to keep my child in the back seat until age 13. You never know when an accident could happen! She has friends who sit in front on highways!!!!!!!!!!!

  15. My 3 kids 5, 7 and 8 ride in booster seats in the back of my van always. My oldest has terrible car sickness issues. It just miserable. I am a single parent so am not able to help when driving. I have a road trip coming up to a family reunion and was debating putting her in the front with the air bag off and seat back with maybe a booster as well but after reading this she is probably gonna have to suffer in the back. Ug.

    1. As a person who easily experiences car sickness too (even in the front seat), I feel for her. And as a mom who has driven cross country, just me and 3 kids who sometimes got sick. I feel for you. Good luck mama!

  16. How can I keep my 9 year old safe while on a long trip if they fall asleep in the back and sprawl across the entire back seat?

    1. There could be a few ways depending on a few factors such as, is the child in a child restraint? If so, which kind, a booster or a RideSafer? Or has the child 5-stepped out of a child restraint and using the seat belt? Is the child wearing a seat belt? If so, is the seat belt properly positioned or is the child putting the shoulder part behind the child? It seems it would be hard for a child to “sprawl across” the back seat in a booster seat so I would guess he’s not in one. So assuming the child is big enough to pass the 5-step test and is wearing a seat belt, I would suggest waking the child up and telling the child to sit up properly. The seat belt cannot do it’s job if the child is out of position. If your seat tilts back maybe tilting it slightly will help the child fall asleep while remaining sitting up. You could also try locking the seat belt to reduce the child’s ability to “sprawl”.

  17. I let my son ride in the front seat when he was 10, although I agree with this a bit. People under the age of 12 riding in the front seat can be unsafe. My son is now 23, he is allowed NOW. Anyone who rides in the front seat HAS to be over 12 or 12 in order to be safer. If you support this, then I will be glad. Have a good rest of your day! -Avery Sparks

    1. I agree, Avery. You can’t just ALLOW your kid to ride in the front seat if their under twelve. Maybe eleven, but twelve is safer. I need to safe, and so do my kids. Treat your kids nice and safe, but that doesn’t mean let them do whatever they want, or they will literally FORCE you to let them ride in the front. Well, I wasn’t allowed to ride in the front until I was 16! But for you guys, probably do twelve! saferide4kids.com, I support you!

  18. Can you add a comment about vehicles with no airbags? I have a Jeep with no backseat and no airbag so….what then?

    Thank you

    1. Hi Lauraleigh, I believe I covered that in the “Are there any exceptions to the rule?” section at the end. If you have a more specific question that is not answered, please let me know.

  19. Hi,
    My 11 year old is 148cms tall and still needs a booster seat for belt positioning purposes. Due to the low roof in the back of the car, he can’t sit in the backseat. We have the front passenger seat as far back as possible, with him using the seat belt and booster seat. Is it safer for him to have the passenger airbag on or off in this situation?

    1. Hi Anna, The goal with pushing the seat back all the way is to keep him out of the airbag’s deployment zone as well as keeping him further away from any potential crash energy in a forward impact crash. With the seat pushed back out of the deployment zone there shouldn’t also be a need to turn off the airbag.

  20. This info help alot! My son is 10 years old. He said he can’t wait to sit in front. I was told he needed to be 90 lbs to be in front Seat. However he’s almost 90 lbs. But your saying he needs to be 13 years old. So I can relax a little more. Thank you!

  21. My granddaughter is only 12 years old but is already 5ft 7 and over 140 lbs. She really wants to sit in the front seat but it looks as if she needs to wait until she’s at least 13. This thread has been very informative. Thank you.

    1. As of now Safe Kids Worldwide and car manufacturers (there is likely a warning label on the passenger seat visor) are still recommending all children 12 and younger sit in the back seat. Since, generally speaking, children younger than 13 have less developed bone structure, we advise to keep children younger than 13 as far away as possible from the most likely potential crash impact, a front impact.

  22. Thanks for keeping up with years of questions. I’ve read through all of this but am still not completely sure what’s safest. I have a Toyota Tacoma truck. There is a back seat with regular seatbelts but I’m worried that because it’s a very small area, that my eight year old isn’t safe with the limited room. In this circumstance, would it be safer to have him in the front with the seat all the way back?

    1. Hi Anne, Quite honestly that’s not a question I’ve been asked before. I’ll see if Greg or another technician has any more information about this.

    2. Hi Anne, Greg says there is no absolute here. On one hand, you have compartmentalization in the back. However, that tight space and very little room to move forward in a forward impact crash (the most common type) could create a situation that causes injury. In which case, front seat with the seat pushed back may be safer. He wondered if you contacted Toyota to ask their opinion.

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