While child passenger safety technicians and the American Academy of Pediatrics has long been recommending that parents keep their children rear-facing past age one, more states finally change their car seat laws to require it.
The best practice recommendation from car seat safety experts is to keep your child rear facing for as long as possible — until the child outgrows the seat by height or weight — but at least until age two.
What is pushing states to change car seat laws?
Studies have shown that children riding in a rear-facing car seat are 5 times safer. This is because when rear facing children’s backs, necks and heads are all being supported by the seat during a crash. Once they are turned forward facing their bodies are being restrained by the harness straps but their necks and heads are left unsupported experience the crash energy.
Before age 2, a child’s skeletal structure is simply not protective enough to handle the impact of a crash when they are facing forward in a car seat.
“According to medical professionals, the heads of young children are heavier, and their necks and spinal cords are not fully developed. In an accident, young children facing forward have a 75% greater chance of injuring their spines or even breaking their necks, due to impact,” said California Assemblywoman Cristina Garcia.
California: Change car seat laws effective Jan 1. 2017
If the child is less than two years of age, the child shall be properly restrained in a rear-facing child restraint system in a rear seat of the vehicle, unless the child is more than 40 pounds or 40 inches.
Garcia, who wrote the change, said, “Despite studies and educational campaigns by doctors and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, not enough parents are changing their behavior. An overwhelming number of parents still place their children in a forward-facing position too early.
Pennsylvania: Change car seat laws effective late summer 2016
The new Pennsylvania law already went into effect this past summer.
Pennsylvania lawmakers increased safety protections for its youngest passengers. Now all children under age two, who haven’t outgrown manufacturers’ limits for their car seat, are required to be buckled into an approved rear-facing child safety seat in the back seat.
Officers enforcing the law will give verbal warnings the first year. After that, each violation will carry a penalty of $75 in addition to costs and fees, increasing the total to $125 according to the state Department of Transportation website.
Wisconsin: Change car seat laws did NOT pass
Wisconsin lawmakers also pushed to pass into law an increase for the rear-facing car seat requirement. The new law would have upped the rear-facing age requirement from 1 year old to 2 years old.
Unfortunately the Wisconsin bill failed to pass into law.
Tennessee: Change car seat laws withdrawn
Tennessee lawmakers withdrew a similar bill seeking to raise the rear-facing requirement to age 2 during the state’s 2016 legislative session.
New Jersey and Oklahoma made similar changes to their car seat laws last year. AAA is working to get other states to follow suit.
What is better; detailed or “vague” laws?
States say the increased requirements replace a law that critics said was too vague. Unfortunately, Safe Ride 4 Kids has found, often times when legislatures try to be “less vague” in their car seat laws, the laws actually end up not allowing for best practice.
For instance, Pennsylvania law says children four years of age or older but under eight years of age must be restrained with a seat belt in a booster seat. Best practice says it is safer to remain in a 5-point forward-facing harness seat until the child outgrows the seat by height or weight. Based on this law, it would be illegal for parents to keep their children safer in a 5-point harness or using other, possibly safer, belt-positioning options like the RideSafer travel vest.
The RideSafer is a federally certified child restraint for children age 3 and up but a few state laws make it confusing to know if it is allowed in their state when they make their law “detailed” and mention booster seats.
And what about older children? Most state car seat safety laws only go up to age 8. However, many children do not fit a seat belt properly at age 8 because they are still not tall enough (recommended to be at least 4’9″ to fit properly). Many children do not fit properly until they are older like 10 or even 12.
Would it be better to keep it more vague? Would it be easier if a law could simply state:
- Children from birth to at least age 2 shall be properly restrained in a federally approved rear-facing child restraint;
- Children, once they outgrow their rear-facing child restraint, shall be properly restrained in a federally approved child restraint based on current car seat best practices for the child’s size until such time a child fit the seat belt properly;
- All children shall remain seated in the back seat of the vehicle until age 13?
And really if you are following best practice, lawmakers wouldn’t even need the first bullet point. But that may be wishful thinking.
Read up on car seat law changes made in 2017 in Connecticut, New York, North Dakota, Oregon, Rhode Island and South Carolina.
We want to know, would you find it more or less confusing to make the law more vague? Would knowing where to find current best practices (here) change your answer? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2022 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 2019. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
How is a single Mom of 3 young children supposed to travel with her children 2,3,& 6 years old if her car is too small to put 3 car seats in the back seat and she cannot afford a van or new car? I am not asking to be a wise guy, I am genuinely trying to understand what my friend is to do. It seems logical to allow the 6 year old up front, with a booster but is that an acceptable exception to Wisconsin law?
Hi Mike, One option would be to use a RideSafer vest for the older child to fit all 3 across the back seat. It would be safest to keep all children in the rear seat. (Fitting 3 across in the back seat is why we started using the RideSafer as opposed to buying a new car when our third came along.) Wisconsin law requires children 4 and under to be in the back seat but it does not look like they specify that for children older than 4. So worst case scenario, she could use a booster seat for the oldest child in the front seat with the front seat pushed back as far as possible to do her best to keep that child out of the airbag deployment zone.