When Can Kids Ride in the Front Seat of the Car?

kid in car

It probably seems just like yesterday when your kids were nestled in infant car seats, or perched on boosters in the back. But at some point, kids get older and large enough graduate to sitting in the front seat of the car. Only many parents aren't sure when their kids should be allowed to ride shotgun, or how to keep their kids safe once they do.


Well, if you ask the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and the Centers for Disease Control, the answer is unanimous: Kids should be at least 13 years old to ride in the front seat of a car.

"It's an issue of both size and skeletal maturity: younger kids have looser ligaments that can be more easily damaged if a crash occurs while they're in the front seat," explains Benjamin Hoffman, MD, medical director of the Tom Sargent Children's Safety Center at OHSU Doernbecher Children's Hospital.

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If your child is 13 but on the smaller side -- under 4'9 -- another way to determine if he's safe in the front seat is to examine how the seat belt fits on his frame.

"The lap belt should lie low on the hips, shoulder belt should cross at the sternum and the collar bone," says Jennifer Hoekstra, car safety coordinator at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, Michigan. If not, the back seat is a safer bet.

What if your vehicle does not have a back seat, like a pickup truck or a van? Good news: you don't have to buy a new vehicle just to move your kids around.

"If a vehicle does not have a back seat, children may ride in the front seat as long as they are properly restrained," says Hoekstra. "For example, if the child still needs a car seat or booster seat, they must use that seat correctly in the front seat of the vehicle."

If your child is still in a rear-facing car seat and must ride in the front, this is the one and only time you'll want to turn your frontal air bag off, experts warn.

"Rear-facing infant car seats must never be placed in front of an active frontal airbag," says Hoekstra. The reason: This puts the back of the car seat (and the baby's head) directly in the air bag's line of fire if it deploys. So, turn off your air bag -- all vehicles with front seats only will have an on/off switch, and that's the only way you should disabled it. If you can't find the switch, consult your car manual or call the manufacturer. But beyond turning it on or off, air bags are not to be messed with!

That said -- even with older kids, air bags can be a concern. While they help keep front seat passengers safe in a crash, they deploy with so much force that they could damage a child's more delicate frame.

The solution? "Move their seat as far back as possible," says Hoekstra. That way, if it does deploy, you reap the benefits but also diminish the risks.

Where do you have your kids sit in your car?


Image via altanaka/shutterstock

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