To a school-age child, getting to sit in the front seat of the car might seem like a sign of being grown-up. You might even be itching to let your child sit in the front seat because it's easier to chat about her day when she's close. Up until the teen years, however, the front seat should be off-limits. In the event of a crash, a young child is always safest in the back seat.
Young children should seat in the back seat of a car because the air bag that would protect you in a crash could turn into the biggest threat to a child in the front seat. According to the University of Rochester Medical Center, when an air bag deploys in front of a small, lightweight child, it can propel her upward, slamming her head into the car roof. And because air bags are designed to protect adults rather than small children, they open with such force that a child hitting an inflating air bag can sustain serious head and neck injuries. A small child sitting in the front seat can be killed even in a low-speed crash, according to the URMC.
Consider two factors when deciding when to move your child to the front seat: your state's laws and the recommendations of child safety experts. Some states, including California and New Jersey, require children to be at least 8 years old before they're allowed to sit in the front. Your state might also have a minimum height requirement, so if your child is tall at a young age, she might be allowed by law to sit in the front before she's 8 years old. Other states, including New York, don't have laws dictating the minimum age for front-seat passengers. Regardless of your state's laws, know that the National Transportation Safety Board recommends that a child sit in the back seat until she is 13 years old.
Ideally your child would be a teen before she tried out the front seat for the first time, but certain scenarios make it necessary to move her up front earlier. Even in states where the minimum front-seat age is 8, a younger child can sit in the front seat in certain circumstances. For instance, in California, children younger than 8 can ride up front in a car without rear seats, or when the back seat is filled with even younger little ones. So if you're driving with an infant, toddler and 5-year-old whose car seats and booster seats take up the entire rear row of seats, a 7-year-old might sit in the front -- but always take precautions to make this as safe a spot for her as possible.
When a child younger than 13 must sit in the front seat, the URMC recommends moving her seat back as far as it will go. This step moves her as far away from the air bag as possible, so that in the event of a crash, it might have time to fully inflate before reaching her and will cushion rather than harm her. Instruct her to stay seated on her bottom with her seat belt on and her back resting against the seat back. Remember that a baby or toddler in a rear-facing car seat should never sit in the front seat with an air bag. If you must transport an infant in a car with no back seat, the California Highway Patrol recommends turning off the seat's air bag switch for the drive. If you can't control the air bag, find another way to get to your destination safely.