The safest place for anyone in the car is the middle of the back seat. For kids, it's especially important to keep them in the back seat for as long as possible. Many states have enacted laws that specify when a child can sit in the front seat, based on height, weight or age. Even if your state hasn't done so, playing it conservatively when it comes to car safety will help keep your child safe.
States that use height as a requirement for sitting in the front seat most often specify 4 feet, 9 inches, as the minimum suggested front-seat height. No child under the age of 13 should sit in the front seat, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Some states don't specifically list age, height or weight requirements for sitting in the front seat, but they do specify that children should reach 4 feet, 9 inches, before using an adult seat belt.
Reasons for Restrictions
A child's risk of injury in an accident drops 33 percent when he rides in the back seat rather than the front, according to the California Highway Patrol. Air bags -- designed to protect front-seat occupants -- can cause serious injury themselves if they inflate. For children below the height requirement, the inflating airbag can hit them in the face, chest, neck or head at speeds of between 90 to 210 miles per hour, the Auto Safety Expert website reports, causing potentially fatal trauma, including decapitation.
Exceptions to the Rules
In some cases, parents must make an exception and allow a child younger or smaller than the suggested limits to sit in the front seat. If you have no back seat in your car or if you have only side-facing jump seats, your child will need to ride in the front seat with the seat belt fastened. 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 must transport multiple children, the youngest children should ride in the back seat.
Front Seat Safety
If you must let children under age 13 ride in the front seat, follow a few safety rules to reduce his risk of injury. Never let him ride without his seat belt on -- make sure he uses both the shoulder and lap belts. The lap belt should fit low across his pelvis, and the shoulder belt should not cut across his neck. Never put the shoulder belt behind his back. Move the seat back away from the dashboard as far as possible. Disable the passenger-side airbag; read your vehicle's instruction manual to find out how to do this.
- Governors Highway Safety Association: State Child Passenger Safety Laws
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: Child Passenger Safety
- California Highway Patrol: California's New Child Passenger Safety Law Effective January 1, 2012
- Auto Safety Expert: Airbag Fatalities to Children
- Yale Medical Group: Air Bags and KIds