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Aaaahhhh. Summer travel time, which includes family road trips and perhaps traveling with children in RVs. RV camping is a great way for families to get away, enjoy the outdoors with the convenience of your own self-contained space.
From a child passenger safety perspective, the question falls to, are these kids using car seats? And if they are not, should they be?
There are three classes of RVs.
Class A are the largest type and look similar to buses. They are between 15,000 and 30,000 pounds and often have living areas that extend out when parked. This slide-out portion is part of the reason the RV Consumer Group (RVCG) say the Class A RVs have more structural problems. The RVCG believes that close to 50% of Class As will not sustain a collision at 20 miles per hour without serious damage. There is no rear occupant crash testing required for Class A RVs.
Class B is more like a built-out conventional van. They typically weigh between 6,000 and 8,000 pounds so they have to meet federal seat belt standards (FMVSS 208) for the front but not for the rear seat occupants. Class B RVs can require lap belt only seat belts in the back seating if it carries a chassis-mount camper that weigh between 8,500 lbs and 10,000 lbs.
Class C RVs are more like a moving truck. These weigh between 10,000 and 12,000 pounds. And manufacturer build them on a van or truck chassis. But they come with the front cab from the vehicle manufacturer so the cab still has those safety features. Class C also have to meet federal seat belt standards for the front seating positions but not the rear.
Though these rear occupant seat belts are usually bolted to the floor, the concern is that the wooden seat structure on which the passenger or child is sitting will fail. And some rear seat belts in RVs are not even bolted to to the metal frame of the vehicle but are rather attached to the plywood cabinets. During a crash the seat belts can be pulled out of the wood with the weight and crash energy of the occupant.
When traveling with children in RVs, do they have to be restrained?
All states have car seat laws to keep children properly restrained and safe while driving. RVs are no exception to this law. Laws vary from state to state. You need to follow the state car seat law for each state you are driving in with your RV.
States also have varying laws for seat belt use for adults and older children. There are 22 states that say all occupants must wear a seat belt. And 26 states have seat belt requirements based on the age of the child. You’ll want to look up the law for RV travel specifically for your state and the state’s you’ll be traveling to.
Legally required or not, it is recommended to properly restrain yourself in a seat belt and your child in a child restraint in a forward-facing vehicle seat with a crash rated seat belt.
Many states require proper use for car seats. This means if a child restraint is not installed in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions on a forward-facing vehicle seat with properly anchored seat belts, it is in effect illegal to transport your child in the vehicle.
Does size equal safety?
For instance, the structural soundness of an RV may be questionable in a crash. One reason for this is because of design features like galley slide-outs. Often the rear compartment is built on a wood or aluminum frame. A crash impact or rollover can crush this frame. In Class A RVs, the front seat belts need to meet federal standards. However, the front compartment itself does not have to meet any crash standards and may not be crash tested.
Some RVs do not have an adequate number of seat belts for the number of occupants. Some of those that do have rear occupant seat belts have at best lap-only belts. Sometimes the seat belts are in side-facing or rear-facing seats, which should never be used to install a car seat.
The trouble is, of course, RVs get into crashes too.
There is great risk in these crashes with the lack of proper ways to restrain occupants, especially children, and lack of places to even put a car seat safely facing the correct direction.
If a car seat is restrained in the rear compartment, a big risk is the wooden seat structure it’s belted to and cabinets can come apart during a crash, increasing the risk of injury or death. Then these structures — and kitchen equipment, and mounted TVs, and decorations, and… — become projectiles. There is serious injury risk to all the passengers.
So how do you travel safely?
Safety experts discourage transporting children in RVs since it is essentially impossible to do so with optimum safety. If you do plan to be traveling with children in RVs, here are some tips:
1. Properly buckle your children in a car seat every time you are driving. In order to do this:
- If you were planning to tow a car, consider driving it instead. This way your children are in their car seats in this vehicle instead of in the RV.
- Use a towable RV (fifth wheel, trailer, truck camper) where children can ride properly restrained in the towing vehicle. Make sure the driver is experienced with towing a trailer. There are inherent dangers in towing a trailer.
- Fifth wheels are large towable trailers that need to connect to heavy-duty trucks with a fifth wheel towing hitch inside the bed of the truck. These trailers are spacious and may include slideouts for more interior space. Parking and maneuvering fifth wheels can be a challenge.
- Other trailers include a pop-up campers, a compact trailer with canvas tent-like pop out sides when you raise the top, or travel trailers, hard walled trailers that come in a variety of lengths and may have a storage area for your toys like snow mobiles or a 4-wheeler.
- Check in the cab of the RV for seating positions that are appropriate for installing car seats.
- Smaller Class B and C RVs that are built on a regular van/truck chassis must meet the same safety standards as passenger vehicles for the front. They may be likely to have the features needed for car seat installations.
- Perhaps they have or can install a custom seat or a captain’s chair in the rear compartment (like the Galleria Class B Motorhomes) with a seat belt that meets standards. Just like you can’t mix and match car seat parts between models or manufacturers, the manufacturer of the RV must order these these parts. Make sure that whatever seat is used in the vehicle, it is facing forward so you can install the car seat properly.
- While we don’t typically recommend the front seat for children, in the case of an RV it may end up being the only safe seat belt to use for a child restraint. (Of course it will only work for a rear-facing car seat if there is no airbag or a way to turn off the airbag.)
- Remember, even when using proper seat belts, passengers are still at risk of cabinets, kitchen equipment and storage supplies becoming projectiles.
2. Make sure all other occupants remain properly buckled also.
Unrestrained occupants are a danger to other passengers much like all the other interior items that become projectiles in a crash.
Car Seat Options
A car seat requires a structurally sound seat belt in a forward facing vehicle seat. That means no side seats or seats facing the back of the RV. Some forward-facing car seats require the use of a tether strap also. If you have such a car seat, you need to also make sure there is an appropriate tether anchor point in the RV.
If lap-only seat belts are the only option in the back of an RV, you will not be able to use a booster seat for older children.
A RideSafer Travel Vest may be a viable option for keeping a child properly restrained in an RV. As with most things, the answer to if it will work for you is, it depends.
If there is a structurally sound lap-shoulder belt or structurally sound lap-only belt and a tether anchor in a forward-facing vehicle seat with a high back, the RideSafer should work. (Structurally sound means the seat belt is bolted to the metal frame of the RV, has a at least 6,000 lb system strength and an appropriate tether anchor strength, says RideSafer manufacturer.) If there is a adequate position that has a lap-only belt and there is a way to affix an Energy Absorbing Tether Anchor Loop (EATAL) somewhere that anchors to the RV, the RideSafer should work.
If the seat belts are not structurally sound and options “Good” or “Best” or even “OK” above are not really options for you. You’ll have to make parental choices to do the best you can for your child’s safety. Would a car seat in a not-really-structurally-sound seat belt be better than no car seat and just the seat belt? Maybe. Since there is no actually testing, we can’t say for sure.
We want to know, do you plan to be traveling with children in RVs this summer? Share your comments below.
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2020 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 May 2016. We updated it for accuracy and comprehensiveness.