As a parent, one of the many decisions you'll need to make is when your child is ready to move from the back seat to the front seat of your vehicle.
This decision involves considering factors like your child's age, height, weight, maturity level, and your state's laws.
While most states don't specify an exact age, there are some general guidelines parents should follow.
Read on for a state-by-state guide on front seat laws for kids, plus important safety information to help you decide when your child is truly ready for this transition.
General Guidelines on What Age Kids Can Sit in the Front Seat
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends that children remain in the back seat until they are at least 13 years old. However, some states allow children younger than 13 to ride in the front if they meet certain requirements.
Some key factors in deciding if a child is ready for the front seat include:
Age: Most experts recommend waiting until at least age 13.
Height/weight: Children should be tall enough to sit properly in the seat with the belt positioned correctly. Generally, this means being at least 4'9" tall.
Maturity level: The child must demonstrate responsible behavior and judgment in the car.
5-step test: The child can pass this test that checks if the seatbelt fits them properly.
Children who are younger than 13 and don't meet the height, weight, or maturity requirements are safest remaining in the back seat. The AAP states that kids under 13 are up to 3 times safer in the back seat compared to the front.
Even if your state legally allows younger kids in front, it's smart to wait until your child passes the 5-step test:
- The child's back should be flat against the vehicle seat back.
- The child's knees should bend comfortably over the edge of the seat.
- The belt should cross the shoulder between the neck and arm.
- The lap belt should fit low over the hips/upper thighs, not the stomach.
- The child is able to stay seated like this for the entire ride.
If your child doesn't pass, continue using a booster seat until they fit properly in the adult seat belt.
State-By-State Laws on Front Seat Age for Kids
Laws regulating when a child can move to the front seat vary somewhat by state. Here are the front seat age laws for kids in some key states:
Children must remain in the back seat until they reach age 13.
Children younger than age 8 and shorter than 4'9" must ride in the rear seat. If the vehicle has no back seat, like a truck, the child may ride in front if properly secured and the airbag is deactivated.
While no specific age is defined in CT laws, the state recommends children remain in the back seat until age 13.
CA law simply requires children to be "properly secured in an appropriate child restraint system." No specific age is given for the front seat.
FL law states children age 5 and under must be in a child restraint, but does not specify front vs. back seat placement.
TX law states children under 8 years old, unless they are taller than 4'9", must ride in the back seat. However, it's recommended that all children remain in the back seat until at least age 13.
PA law requires children under age 4 to be properly restrained, but does not specify front vs. back seat. The state recommends keeping kids in the back until at least age 13.
IL law requires children under age 8 to be in child restraints, but does not specify front vs. back seat placement. The state recommends children remain in the back until they reach age 13.
OH law states kids under 4 years old or under 40 pounds must use a child seat. No specific front seat age is defined.
MI law requires appropriate child restraints but does not indicate front vs. back seat placement. Experts in MI recommend waiting until age 13 before allowing kids to take the front seat.
NC law indicates kids under age 8 and shorter than 4'9" should be in the back seat, but does not have a specific age requirement for the front seat.
While most states don't define an exact age for the front seat, some have additional restrictions for children under a certain age.
GA law states children must remain in rear-facing seats until age 1 and 20 pounds. After that, they should remain in the back seat until at least age 13.
IN law requires kids under age 8 to be secured in a child restraint system or booster seat. The state recommends children stay in the back seat until they are at least 13 years old.
VA law mandates kids under age 8 be properly secured in a child restraint device. However, children are recommended to remain in the back seat until they reach age 13.
AZ law states a child under 8 years old must be properly secured in the back seat, unless all back seats are already occupied by younger children. After age 8, it's recommended to keep children in the back until age 13.
CO law requires proper child restraint but does not indicate specific front vs. back seat placement. The recommendation is to keep children in the back until age 13.
Why the Back Seat is Safest for Kids
Simply meeting your state's minimum age requirement for front seat riding doesn't necessarily mean your child is truly ready to leave the back seat. The back seat is still the safest spot for kids until age 13, mainly due to these key safety risks:
Airbags deploy extremely fast, with enough force to kill young children. Airbags are designed to protect average-sized, seat-belted adults. Children under 13 are up to 3 times more likely to be injured by front seat airbags compared to seat-belted adults. Rear seats are safest because they put more distance between your child and front airbags.
More Severe Crash Injuries
Multiple studies show that children age 12 and under face a higher risk of serious injury or death in crashes if they ride in the front seat versus the back seat. One study found front-seating kids 4-8 were 3.5 times more likely to be seriously injured.
Children, especially those who are restless or prone to misbehave, can be a significant distraction to the driver when seated in the front. This increases the risk of crashes occurring.
Improper Seat Belt Fit
It's difficult to properly position shoulder and lap seat belts on smaller children. If the belt doesn't fit right, your child is more likely to suffer crash injuries.
Difficulty With Seat Belt Use
Younger kids often have trouble remembering to buckle their seat belts or leave them buckled properly. Drivers may also have difficulty monitoring belt use for front seat kids.
Safety Features to Consider Before the Switch
If you decide your child is ready to move to the front based on your state's laws and general guidelines, there are some key safety features to consider first:
Ensure your vehicle has airbags that can be deactivated for the front passenger seat, and that you know how to disable them. This eliminates the airbag injury risk. Don't allow a child in front if airbags can't be turned off.
Choose a vehicle with side airbags or curtains to protect your child in side-impact crashes. Make sure your child's seating position has this side protection.
Five-Point Harness System
Use a belt-positioning booster seat with this 5-point system until your child passes the seat belt fit test. The harness distributes crash forces evenly.
Lap and Shoulder Belt
Only allow the switch from booster to seat belt if it fits properly across your child's chest and hips and they can stay buckled properly.
The center rear seat is safest if available in your vehicle. If your child must ride in front, disable airbags and use proper restraints.
Choosing the Right Car Seat or Booster
The right child safety seat or belt-positioning booster is critical to protect your child in the event of a crash. Follow these guidelines:
- Infants under 1 year AND at least 20 pounds should remain rear-facing as long as possible, until exceeding the seat's height and weight limits. Rear-facing seats
For toddlers 1-3 years old AND 20-40 pounds, use a convertible or 3-in-1 seat in rear-facing mode. Many can remain rear-facing up to 40-50 pounds.
When your child exceeds the rear-facing limits for their seat, switch the seat to forward-facing mode. Use the harness system up to the weight limit (typically 40-65 lbs).
Once your child exceeds the weight or height limit for their forward-facing seat, transition to a belt-positioning booster seat. Use the booster until seat belts pass the 5-step fit test.
Check your car seat manual AND your vehicle owner's manual for proper installation instructions. When installing the seat, allow no more than 1 inch of movement at the belt path.
Use LATCH system instead of seat belts if both are options. LATCH provides more stability.
Register your car seat with the manufacturer so you'll be notified of any recalls.
Avoid used seats if you don't know the full history. Only use hand-me-down seats that are less than 6 years old and haven't been in a crash.
Tips for Deciding When Your Child is Ready
While most states allow children as young as 6-8 years old to ride in the front seat, it's still best to wait until at least age 13 if possible. Every child matures at a different rate, so consider these tips beyond just your state's minimum age:
If your child is not yet tall enough to pass the 5-step seat belt fit test, continue using a booster seat. Don't rush this transition.
Make sure your child consistently demonstrates responsible behavior in the car. No rowdy behavior, taking off the seat belt, or distracting the driver.
Take practice drives with your child in the front passenger seat. Monitor them for safe behavior, proper belt use, and sitting still.
Explain safety rules for the front seat to your child. Make sure they understand the importance of proper seat belt use at all times.
Consider your child's physical size and maturity, not just age. Some children may still be too small for front seat safety at age 10-12.
While most states don't specify an exact age for riding in the front seat, it's clear children are safest in the rear seats until they reach age 13. However, some states do allow younger children who meet certain height and weight requirements to move to the front. As a parent, take your state's minimum age laws into account. But also consider your own child's physical size, maturity level, and ability to demonstrate responsible behavior. Wait until you're fully convinced your child is ready so their safety isn't compromised.
With some states allowing children under 10 to legally ride in the front seat, it's easy for parents to make this transition too early. Don't rely only on minimum age laws. The back seat remains the safest spot for most kids until they reach their teen years.
When deciding if your child is ready, be sure to:
Check your state's specific front seat age laws for kids
Make sure your child passes the 5-step seat belt fit test
Consider your child's height, weight, maturity level, and behavior
Ensure your vehicle has airbags that can be deactivated for the front seat
Use a booster seat until your child fits properly in the adult seat belt
Have your child demonstrate responsible behavior on practice drives
Clearly explain all safety rules for riding in the front seat
With the proper car seat or booster selected for your child's age and size, correct installation, and smart observation of when your child is truly mature enough, you can feel confident in the decision to finally let your child leave the back seat. Following these guidelines will help ensure your child's safety remains the top priority.