When can children sit in the front seat of the car?

Age 13. Bam. Done!

It is safest and best practice for children to wait to sit in the front seat until they are age 13.

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 airbag 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 have the one of the warning labels shown above.

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.

“everyWe get it. It’s hard. Even though our 11-year-old has been told 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.

9 out of 10 parents allow their children to use the vehicle seat belt before they can properly pass the 5-step test so it’s no surprise that they’ll also allow their children to sit in the front seat prior to the recommended age of 13.

And while some states do have laws which require children to sit in the back seat most do not and 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.

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 and the speed at which they travel. Most importantly what has changed is our knowledge of crash dynamics and occupant safety.

Three main reasons

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 us, 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.

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.

3. Bone development. Kids may be as big as adults on the outside but their skeletal system is still developing.

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 point 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’s breast bones, or sternum, are not fully developed yet either. 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 it’s allowed to 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 and 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 seat? Share your comments below.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2017 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. This material may not be republished, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without permission. You’re welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

© amie durocher
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11 Comments
  • Richard G
    Posted at 12:50h, 28 November Reply

    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!

    • Amie
      Posted at 13:29h, 28 November Reply

      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.

  • Mary
    Posted at 17:16h, 05 December Reply

    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.

  • Emily grace makela
    Posted at 17:39h, 17 December Reply

    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?

    • Amie
      Posted at 10:57h, 18 December Reply

      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.

  • Ed
    Posted at 08:21h, 14 January Reply

    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.

  • Robbi Bain
    Posted at 20:20h, 01 March Reply

    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.

    • Amie
      Posted at 11:45h, 12 March Reply

      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.

  • Jennifer Nelson
    Posted at 16:55h, 09 March Reply

    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.

    • Amie
      Posted at 12:13h, 12 March Reply

      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.

  • Lenda shamoon
    Posted at 09:15h, 03 April Reply

    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.

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