What is it about riding in the front seat of the car that makes kids feel so grown up? If you’ve got a full vehicle or your kiddo is asking to ride shotgun, you may be wondering when they can. Laws on when children can ride in the front seat vary by state, but child safety experts say they have their own standards.
Tammy Franks, program manager for the National Safety Council, tells Romper that state laws shouldn’t be your measure of whether your child is safe riding up front. “There are two ways of looking at this: when can and when should. Can is looking at the law. Should is looking at best practice, which is what the National Safety Council, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and American Academy of Pediatrics all promote: The best place for children under the age of 13 is in the back seat, period,” she says.
Cynthia Dennis, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids Northeast Florida at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville, tells Romper that the main concern with kiddos riding shotgun is the airbag.
“Best practice is for your child to ride in the backseat until they’re 13 years old. That’s because of the danger of the airbag which, if it deploys, comes out at 200 miles per hour. They would be at risk for a severe injury if they were impacted by a deploying airbag. A lot of times what happens is it hits them so hard and they’re so light, they can get a head injury from being impacted upward.”
Dennis adds that, statistically, most car accidents involve the front end of the car. For this reason, it's crucial parents are careful about when they let their little ones ride up front.
“Statistically most accidents happen from the front end, so it’s a pretty dangerous seat in the car, so anyone would be safer in the backseat,” says Dennis. “Being in the backseat doesn’t mean that you don’t still need to be restrained properly. They need to wear a seatbelt or wear a booster seat if it doesn’t fit well yet.”
Franks agrees, saying the most important part of deciding if your kid is ready to be your co-pilot is visually checking to see if they fit the front seat appropriately. This is going to be more accurate than relying on age alone.
“We want to make certain they’re seated properly, using the seatbelt properly, and at least 10 to 12 inches away from the airbag. Can the child keep their back against the vehicle seat without slouching? Can their knees bend naturally at the edge of the seat? If they can’t, they’re going to slouch forward, and that will put them closer to the airbag. They want to keep their feet on the floor as well. The lap belt needs to fit snugly across the upper thighs, not up in that soft abdominal area. Depending on how the front vehicle seat is, you may need to adjust the height of the seatbelt. Always check this in every seating position in every vehicle.”
By sticking to these standards, you should meet your state’s laws about littles in the front seat no matter what they are (but you can look them up by state to be certain).
Cynthia Dennis, RN, coordinator of Safe Kids Northeast Florida at Wolfson Children’s Hospital of Jacksonville
Tammy Franks, program manager for the National Safety Council