Amy S.'s 6-year-old daughter, who rides in the back of the family car in a booster seat, recently started asking if she can sit up in the front of the car with Mom. Jessica B.'s son is also begging to ride in the front seat, especially when he sees his peers get out from the front seat of the car when he's dropped off at school. Diane B.'s 11-year-old pretends not to hear her requests to return to the back seat.
It's normal for kids to express an interest in riding in the front seat of the car in the years leading up to teen-hood. But with parents in online communities referring to the front seat of a car as a "suicide seat," "death trap," or "child killer," as a reader named Charlie P. reports, it's no wonder the first response of many moms is a resolute "no."
So when does it become reasonably safe to allow your child to ride up front?
1. "Not Until the Teen Years"
General reader wisdom says children should not ride in the front of the car until they are about 12 or 13 years old. As Kelly B. explains, "What people don't understand is the reasoning behind why kids shouldn't sit in the front seats. They just are not big enough [before 12 or 13]."
She goes on to break down why riding in the front seat isn't as safe as riding in the back seat. During a collision, a child in the front seat can be thrown into the dashboard or through the windshield:
"Even if he's properly buckled in, he's at much greater risk for being harmed by objects intruding into the car in the front than in the back. What's more, in cars with passenger air bags (which includes most newer models), the car's frontal air bags deploy with such force that they can cause severe head and neck injuries to a child," she shares.
Jeannett S. and Talisha B. agree that it's best to wait until the teen years to allow your child to move up front. That's most likely the time when your child will reach the height and weight needed to minimize injury from an exploding air bag in a crash. "Just like a roller coaster ride at an amusement park requires you to be 'At Least This Tall to Ride the Ride,' so should a child be to sit in the front seat," says Jeannett. And Talisha adds firmly, "Once a child outgrows a booster seat, he or she should continue riding in the back seat with a seat belt until around age 13."
Brandi C., a mom who works in medicine, confirms these rationales with an eyewitness account. As a medical worker, she reports, the hardest thing she ever saw was the aftermath of an accident involving a 7-year-old "who wanted to ride up front with daddy to the store" and who had indeed been riding in the front seat: "They were rear-ended, and because of the child's size, he slipped under the seatbelt and under the dash, [and] died instantly. Since then, I have always carried that with me, and have chosen that my son and stepkids will not sit in the front seat until they are teenagers."
Some passenger safety organizations, such as SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A., take concerns like Brandi's one step further and suggest children continue to ride in the back seat until they are ready to drive themselves.
2. When State Laws Say It's OK
Some states have specific child-restraint laws and laws that spell out the rules regarding children riding in the front seat, offers a member named Talisha. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has information about choosing the right seat for your child in the car.
The laws can be very specific about what age, height, and weight a child must be to sit in a front seat. For example, in Colorado, where Brandi C. lives, children have to be 5 feet tall and 11 years old before they can ride in the front seat, she reports. Because each state is different, moms need to familiarize themselves with their own state's requirements. A mom named Jennifer suggests asking a local police officer the appropriate age, height, and weight for safe front-seat riding.
3. When No Other Seats Are Available
State laws are typically accommodating, letting a child who normally would not be allowed to sit up front to sit next to the driver if there are not enough safe rear seats in the vehicle, such as in a pickup truck, Sherri C. says. She notes that she had to let her oldest start sitting up front at age 9, when she ran out of seating in the back of her car. "With four car seats [already] in the back, he didn't have a spot to fit in," she explains.
Lynn V. notes that she would have had to let one of her three children ride in front when she owned a Plymouth Breeze. However, because she felt it was unsafe, she instead bought a Ford Expedition that had more rear seating available.
4. When Air Bags Are Turned Off
If you do place your child in the front seat, Kelly B. suggests checking to see whether your car's air bag has an on-off switch or taking your vehicle to the car dealership so that it can be disabled, and Brandy S. provides more details:
"Most two-seat cars and pickup trucks sold these days either have a switch that allows you to manually turn off the air bag, or they have 'smart' air bags that detect the weight of the body in the passenger seat and will automatically turn it off if the body does not weigh more than a certain amount. In certain scenarios, you may be able to take your vehicle to the dealership and have them deactivate the air bag if your vehicle does not offer other air bag-off options for placing a child in the passenger seat."
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration maintains a list of companies that install airbag on-off switches, Kelly adds, although she says parents need to get permission from that government organization before installing such a switch. And "if your passengers have all moved out of the car-seat phase, your biggest or tallest passenger should ride in the front seat, and [you should] move his seat as far back from the dashboard as possible," Kelly says.
Once the air bag is disabled, Charlie P. feels that the front seat is a "safe and practical place for a rear facing child" in a car seat, because, among other reasons, the front of the vehicle and dashboard are the strongest points in the car and research shows that parents are less distracted when their child is in the front vs. rear seat. "Safety conscious brands such as Volvo also state very clearly that front seat is just as safe as the rear seat for car seats," this member notes.
Whatever your circumstances, the most important consideration, say many moms, is safety: if you're not comfortable with the idea of moving your child up front, don't cave in. A member named Kelly suggests buying some time by getting a high-back booster seat and installing it in the center of the back seat so that your child can more easily see and talk to you without having to sit next to you. As RenaFaye N. reminds, your most important consideration should be safety: "A child's safety is more important than what she thinks she wants."