Is the Third Row Safe for Children, Car Seats, and Passengers?

The third row may be the safest row in your vehicle.
The third row may be the safest row in your vehicle.

One of the most common questions I get from parents involves the safety of the 3rd row in 3-row minivans and SUVs. Whether from old articles online, rumors from baby forums, or general feelings of unease, many parents come to believe the third row is one to be avoided at all costs.  However, is it true?

Not at all. There are certainly risks involved with using the third row, but on average, the third row is actually the *safest* place to be in a vehicle with three rows. We’ll dive into why in this article.

The Third Row is the Safest Row in a Crash – But Why?

The reason why the third row is the safest place for children, car seats, or passengers in general, on average, is due to the distribution of points of impact in fatal multi-vehicle collisions. From earlier articles, you know that most fatal multiple-vehicle crashes by volume are frontal crashes, followed by side collisions, followed by rear-end collisions. Why is this?

Not all crashes carry the same risks of fatalities

Frontal collisions (e.g., head-ons, moderate overlaps, small overlaps) are the most common fatal multiple-vehicle collisions simply because most roads don’t offer significant barriers between opposite direction traffic, and high-speed (e.g., 40 mph and higher) collisions in such situations can rapidly become fatal.

In fact, analyses of multiple-vehicle collisions and fatalities reveals that roughly 1 out of 2 multiple-vehicle collisions involve frontal impacts, and 1 out of every 2 multiple collision deaths are from such impacts. This doesn’t mean that 1 out of every 2 frontal collisions will lead to fatalities; it just means that half of all multiple-vehicle collisions involve frontal collisions, and that half of all multiple-vehicle fatalities also involve frontal collisions. It’s a common crash scenario, and it’s also a common fatality scenario. However, the risk of dying in a frontal collision is proportional to the risk of being involved in one. This isn’t the case in side and rear-end collisions.

Side collisions (.e.g, t-bones) aren’t as common in occurrence as frontal collisions; only about 1 out of every 5 multiple-vehicle collisions will feature one vehicle t-boning another. However, if a multiple-vehicle collision is a fatal one, there is a 1 in 3 chance that the collision involved a side impact. In other words, the risk of dying in a side collision is disproportionately higher than the risk of dying in a frontal collision.

Fortunately, with rear-end collisions, the odds reverse in our favor. Rear-end collisions are more common than side impact collisions (slightly more than 1 out of every 4 multiple-vehicle collisions are rear-enders), but they’re dramatically less likely to be fatal. Only 1 out of every 12 multiple collision deaths results from one vehicle crashing into another from behind. In other words, the risk of dying in a rear-end collision is proportionally much lower than the risk of dying in either a frontal- or side-collision. In fact, even though there are 25% more rear-enders than t-bones on the road, there are more than 4x as many side impact fatalities than rear-end fatalities each year.

Where are the most dangerous and safest positions for a child in a vehicle?

An analysis of crash frequencies and fatalities shows us that the most dangerous places for a child to sit in a vehicle are likely the front passenger seat, followed the outboard seats of the second row, followed by the outboard seats of the third row.

I’d estimate the safest places for a child to sit in a vehicle are the center third and center second row seats, followed by outboard seats in the third and second rows. This doesn’t take the orientation (e.g., rear- vs forward-facing), duration (e.g., rear-facing until 1 vs rear-facing until 5) or type (e.g., harnessed vs booster) of seat into account, but simply the location of the seat.

How to use car seat choices reduce risks of child injury or death in frontal, side, and rear collisions

With this knowledge, our focus turns toward reducing the risks of deaths from frontal- and side-impact collisions by varying the kinds of car seats we choose, how we orient them, and how long we use them before changing to less safe seats. This is ultimately more important.

We reduce these risks by rear-facing children for as long as possible (ideally until 4), then forward-facing them in harnesses for as long as possible (ideally until they turn 8), and then keeping them in booster seats until they’re large enough to sit safely in adult vehicle seats with only seat belts (which typically happens between the ages of 10 to 12). The orientation of the seat, the type of seat used, and the length of time a child spends in a particular seat has a greater impact on child safety than where a child happens to be sitting in a vehicle.

In other words, a rear-facing child in any row is safer than a forward-facing child in any row. A 5-year old in a harnessed seat in any row is safer than a 5-year old boostered child in any row. The longer you can keep your kids rear-facing vs forward-facing, the safer they are. The longer you can keep them forward-facing vs boostered, the safer they are. The longer you can keep them boostered (until they’re big enough to use adult seats and belts), the safer they are.

So you’re telling me, Mike, that the third row is a safe place for kids or adults?

Yes! The third row is likely the safest place you can seat a child in a vehicle that offers such a row, and I’d estimate the center seat of the third row to be the safest location in a vehicle. The third row is the most impervious to severe frontal crashes, which take the greatest number of lives per year in multiple-vehicle collisions.

This, by the way, is why airplanes almost always have their cockpit and data recorders located in the tail of the plane; this location has the most protection from catastrophic damage due to the rest of the plane being in front of it.

The center seat in any row, as I’ve discussed previously, offers the most protection against side impact collisions, which are much rarer than rear-facing collisions but are proportionally much more likely to be fatal. The third row is the most vulnerable to rear-end collisions, but statistically, these collisions are the least likely to result in fatal injuries simply because of the direction in which both vehicles will be traveling.

Above all, remember that seat orientation, duration, and type matters more than row location. In Sweden, for example, parents frequently install rear-facing seats in the front passenger seat of vehicles. This is very rare in the US, but statistically, it’s still safer than forward-facing anywhere else in the vehicle.

As a result, if rear-end collisions aren’t the least common collisions but are the types of multiple-vehicle collisions with the lowest fatality risks, it stands to reason that these are the collisions you need to spend the least amount of time worrying about. However, you do want to make sure that your third row has side curtain airbags, just as your second and first rows should, as these offer substantial protection against side impact collisions, particularly if your child is seated in an outboard seat. Most new three row vehicles that feature side airbags do feature them in all three rows, but this is not always the case, so you’ll want to check (Kia, for example, didn’t include third row side airbags in the previous generation Sorento).

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