I’ve written extensively about the benefits of extended rear-facing, reasons to keep kids harnessed well into the elementary school years if possible, and why to keep older children in booster seats until they pass the five-step test for seat belt readiness. However, many parents of older children (or those simply looking ahead) wonder what comes next. Can kids sit in the front seat as soon as they’re ready for adult seat belts?
When should children ride in the front seat?
The blunt truth is that the safest place in a car for children, teenagers, and adults of any age is in the back seat. Specifically, the center seat of the farthest rear row possible is, statistically speaking, the safest seat in a passenger vehicle. However, most children and teenagers aren’t going to want to sit in the back forever, even if it’s the safer choice, so what’s the next best thing? To keep kids in the back seat at least until they turn 13. This is a recommendation directly from the NHTSA.
Why should parents wait until 13, instead of 12, 11, etc, or even 14 or 15 or older?
Waiting until 13 is important because this is a threshold at which most children will generally already have passed the 5-step test for seat belt use, meaning most parents who do nothing else but wait this long before placing their kids in the front row will have a very high chance of having children who can safely use the seat belt in the front row. Additionally, the significant amount of force used in frontal airbags is significantly less likely to severely injure or kill children once they have a certain amount of mass, height, and bone strength; these 3 factors are more likely to be achieved when most children are at least 13 than at earlier ages.
But I want to speak to my child / reward them / provide them with driving experience / etc!
All of these reasons are frequently chosen by parents who sit their < 13-year-old children in the front row, and as a parent, I understand them. It’s easier to speak to someone beside you than behind you, it’s an easy and effective way of rewarding a child for good behavior, it can promote closeness, and it can also give a child a chance to see what you’re doing as you drive before s/he is ready to get behind the wheel. However, none of these reasons are compelling enough to override the increased safety risk of placing children in the front row before necessary.
Regarding the driving reason in particular…teenagers will learn far more from watching you drive at 16 than they will at 13, much less at 12 or 11 or 10. Certain things are easier to teach at certain stages of development, and cognitively, a 16-year-old will be much more likely to absorb relevant safety lessons related to driving than will a 13-year-old. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t talk to your teen or tween or child about safe driving practices; I started talking to my oldest child about street safety and parking lot safety when she was 1, if not earlier. However, it does mean that you shouldn’t use osmosis as an excuse to place your child in a more dangerous seating position before necessary.
What if my child points out that his/her friends or older siblings are / were sitting in the front seat at (insert age under 13)?
This is one of the most frequently attributed reasons for bypassing the guideline of keeping kids in the back seat until 13. Many parents would prefer to keep their kids in the back seat but move them forward early because of peer pressure. They either hear from their children, or at times from other parents, family members, or even co-workers, that “all” kids were sitting in the front seat by their kids’ age, and that it’s silly, impractical, or unreasonable to expect a child older than 12, 11, 10, 9, etc to sit in the back seat. What do you do then?
Well, you’ve got to make a decision at that point. There are a lot of things in our society related to the safety and welfare of people in relation to the automobile where the societal pressure is to prioritize the automobile over people. Rear-facing past 1 is inconvenient; harnessing past 5 is silly. Booster seats aren’t even required! Everyone speeds! One drink doesn’t make you drunk! Why would you walk or bike when you could drive? It goes on and on.
What’s prudent isn’t always popular. Best practices are often buzzkills. Waiting until 13 is safer, and no one will value the life of your child more than you will.
Remember – avoid driving if you can. If you have to drive, do so as little as possible in the safest vehicles possible, while doing so as safely as possible. And you’ll cut your driving risk a lot more quickly and effectively by reducing your miles, following the speed limit like your life depends on it, never, ever, ever drinking before driving, buckling up as consistently as you breathe, and keeping kids restrained safely through all the stages of child development than you will by buying any passenger vehicle on the market.
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