Sitting in the front seat of the car is often viewed as a rite of passage. It feels like a very adult thing to do, and there’s so much freedom inherent in the seating position: you can see the entire road and you can reach the radio! What’s not to love? Well, for one, airbags. Now don’t get me wrong, I love me some safety features. NHTSA estimates that the combination of an airbag plus a lap and shoulder belt reduces the risk of death in frontal crashes by 61 percent, but this data only applies to occupants over the age of 13. For kids under 12, the risk is increased because their bones are simply not strong enough to withstand the force at deployment. We know that rear-facing children should never, ever ride in the front seat with an active airbag, but the message seems to be lost for the tween crowd. So let’s break it down: why should your tween and young teen ride in the back seat?
- As mentioned above: airbags. They are designed to support the weight of an adult, and they are also designed to be used in conjunction with a properly fitting 3 point seat belt (lap and shoulder). In recent years airbags have been altered to be less explosive on deployment but they are still wicked strong. Before puberty, a child’s bones are more likely to break due to these forces.
- Seat belt fit is also super important. Simply using a seat belt is not enough: it needs to fit well. If the lap portion of the belt sits too high up on the child’s abdomen it will lead to internal injuries in those soft tummies. The shoulder belt can dig into their necks when improperly positioned, leading the child to suffer from neck injuries or, even worse, prompting them to move the belt under their arm to avoid the discomfort. This can be catastrophic in a crash because the belt is now only lying on soft tissue, not bones, and therefore has nothing to hold onto. A child who can sit in the vehicle seat and pass the 5 step test should still sit in the back until they are 13, though.
- Booster seats are still typically needed for most kids under 12. Tweens in the front seat who are begging for some freedom from younger siblings or craving one-on-one time while on the drive to school are typically not using boosters because they’re viewed as a “baby” item. The law here in Michigan allows a child over the age of 8 or over the height of 4’9″ to go without a booster, which to be frank is not awesome. 8-year-olds do not fit in seat belts designed for 180lb grown men and so that seat belt cannot do its job properly without some help. A booster helps position the 3 point belt on the strongest parts of a child’s body (hips and shoulders) so it can keep them safely restrained.
Yup. I know. Back in our day, we didn’t use safety restraints this long and blah blah blah… but let me tell you, this is not helicopter parenting. This is injury reduction and it’s a life-saving measure. Airbags, seat belts, booster seats – they’re all designed to increase the safety of vehicle occupants. I know kids will complain about having to sit in the back. I also know that frankly, it’s easier to load them in the car without arguments about who sits where because the rules are the rules are the rules. Chances are the manual for your vehicle strongly suggests that children under 13 ride in the rear seats when possible; show them that if it helps. It’s also likely listed on the sun visor of the front seats.
Don’t forget about the largest recall in US history, either: the Takata airbag recall. Check to see if your vehicle is affected before letting anyone ride in the passenger seat.
Now, what to do if you have a 5 seater vehicle and you have to transport more than 3 kids? Or if the kids don’t fit safely in the back seat with the available car seats or boosters? If a child MUST ride in the front, choose the oldest or the booster rider to sit there. Move the vehicle seat as far back as possible to stay away from the airbag while still ensuring the shoulder belt fit is good. Do not allow them to play with the radio settings; this encourages them to be out of proper seating position but it’s also driver’s call on what goes on the radio. They’ve got a few more years before they’re ready for that responsibility.
Dana is the lucky mother to two incredible kids (aged 10 & 6) and the happy wife of Nate. She stumbled around in her adult life for a while before finally realizing that she could get paid to pursue her passion: keeping kids safe. In 2013 she started working at Modern Natural Baby in Ferndale where she eventually became a Child Passenger Safety Technician with additional Special Needs training. Dana also runs the child passenger safety-focused Facebook page Buckle Up Detroit and works with the amazing lady bosses at Metro Detroit Doula Services offering car seat classes, consultations, and more!