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Car Seats Series #2 : Direction – Rear facing vs Forward Facing Car Seats
After we select the right car seat for our child’s stage, we need to determine which direction that car seat should face. How do we do that? A convertible or all-in-one type of car seat can either face the rear or the front of the car. When we apply the 5 safety principles of every restraint system, which is better?
Rear facing vs forward facing car seats
According to NHTSA’s Child Passenger Safety Technicians certification program, there are 5 principles every restraint system applies whether that is a seat belt or a child restraint system, aka car seat. These are principles you need to be aware of when deciding between rear-facing or forward-facing car seats for your child.
These principles are:
- Keep occupants inside the vehicle. When a person is thrown from a vehicle the potential for injury increases drastically.
- Contact the strongest points of the body.
- Spread the crash force out of as much of the body surface area as possible.
- Ride down the crash. This means to spread the crash energy out over more time for instance by the seat belts giving and stretching some during a crash
- Protect the head, neck and spinal column — the parts of the human body that are really hard to repair once they are damaged.
As you can imagine forward impacts are the most common type of impact. Another little factoid is that most crashes, about 97 percent, are 30mph or less.
Frontal crashes: rear facing versus forward facing car seats
When we’re talking about frontal crashes, we want the child to be rear facing for the at least their first two years. They are now making child restraints that go to much higher rear-facing weight limits. If you can keep your child rear facing longer, all the better.
Rear facing is better because, in that forward impact the child’s head, neck and back are all being supported by the child restraint.
When we flip that child forward facing, we’re using the harness to restrain the child’s body. Ideally we’re going to be using the tether anchor system and the child restraint will be properly installed according to car seat manufacturer’s instructions.
From a crash dynamics perspective, we’re looking at the harness contacting the shoulders and hips with the crotch buckle in the middle. That’s the “contacting the strongest points” and “spreading the crash force out over as much of the body as possible”.
In a forward-facing car seat the child’s body is being restrained by the harness but there’s nothing about the child restraint system that’s necessarily restraining their head or their neck in that forward impact. This is the down side of forward facing or the reason that it’s one step away from optimum protection, which is rear facing.
Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them
That’s why the rear-facing recommendation is to keep your child rear-facing as long as possible. We want to give the bones in the neck as much time as possible to get as strong as possible. Then the neck has the best chances of being able to restrain the head and protect the spinal column in that forward impact when that child is forward facing.
Once a child is turned forward facing, the harness is restraining the child in a crash and the head flies forward. At this age the vertebrae are not calcified (strong) enough to hold the ligaments between them. And the ligaments can pull out of the vertebrae. The force of the head stretching the spinal cord as little as 1/4 of an inch causes injury up to and including full separation from the brain stem, also known as internal decapitation.
Frontal impacts: Seat belt positioning device
Now if we think about the next stage after the 5-point harness is the seat belt positioning stage. That is the stage where most commonly people are familiar with the booster seat. But that’s also where the RideSafer Travel Vest comes into play as a seat belt positioning device. At that point what we’re doing is positioning the adult seat belt on a child.
A booster works by lifting the child up so the adult seat belt will accommodate them better. The RideSafer vest does essentially the same thing but by bringing the seat belt down to the child and locking it in place on the shoulder and hips with the clips that are part of the vest.
The other component of the vest that we really like is that the front panels of the vest are designed to absorb and dissipate the crash energy of the vehicle seat belt doing the work of restraining the child. That again is applying that principle of spreading the crash out over as much of the body is possible.
With the clip on the shoulder of the RideSafer vest, we’re able to keep that shoulder belt properly positioned on the child. Even if they move around some, that seat belt is going to track with them.
Which direction should your car seat face for Optimum protection
Rear facing is optimum protection. All newborns should start rear facing. Children should remain rear facing until the upper limits of their car seat. If an infant starts in an infant carrier car seat, they may move into a convertible car seat facing the back of the vehicle seat first. Then the child can stay rear facing until the upper limits of that seat. Parents should keep their children rear facing at least until age 2 but preferably longer.
When forward facing — whether with a harness, a booster seat or the RideSafer vest — the mechanics of the head neck and spinal column are virtually the same in that forward impact because it’s the head and the neck that are unrestrained and moving forward.
Once we move beyond the RideSafer vest or booster, a child goes into just the vehicle seat belt system. Part of that process is determining when your child can move to that step with 5-step seat belt fit test, which is covered in one of our videos.
Side note: Pregnancy protection
I also want to mention at Safe Ride 4 kids, we recommend the Tummy Shield. This introduces seat belt safety for the pregnant mother. This is important because the vehicle’s seat belt system was never intended for pregnant moms. Seat belts were designed for the average adult male.
The Tummy Shield does a great job of applying these same principles of keeping the occupant in the car, contacting the strongest points of the body, spreading the crash forces out and doing everything that we can to help the mother ride down the crash without impacting the unborn child.
We want to know, how long are you keeping your child rear facing? Share your comments below.
By Greg Durocher, CEO at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Technician Instructor since 2002
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 July 2016. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.