Should your kid be riding in the front seat?

Why the back seat is always safest—even for older kids.

Photo: Stocksy

If you’re over the age of 30, chances are good you were riding in the front seat of your parents’ car well before you entered your tween years. Car passenger safety regulations have come a long way since we were gazing out the window unbuckled and car-seat free—but kids’ desire to move on up to the front seat hasn’t changed much at all.

There are plenty of reasons kids beg to sit in the front. They might want to see the road ahead, talk more easily to the driver or separate themselves from their siblings. And then there’s the cool factor: Sitting in front makes kids feel more grown-up. For 10-year-old Luca, son of Toronto mom-of-three Marnie Rubio, watching his older sister Gigi and some of his friends hop into the front seat makes him want to, too. “There’s this whole, ‘So-and-so gets to do it,’” says Rubio.

But no amount of begging or badgering should sway parents’ resolve to keep their school-ager in the back. Studies show that the back seat is up to 40 percent safer than the passenger seat for kids under the age of 13. And although there’s no law that says kids can’t ride in the front, both Transport Canada and the Canadian Paediatric Society recommend that kids be at least 12 before doing so.

“But, Mom,” whines your 10-year-old, “I’m the same height and weight as you!” Yep, some school-agers are about the same size as their moms, thanks to early growth spurts—but that still doesn’t mean they should ride shotgun. “As we pass through puberty, our pelvises get harder,” explains Jen Shapka, a certified car seat technician in Barrie, Ont. The extra bone strength means an adult can better handle the impact of a crash.

Another reason the back is safer? Front-seat passenger airbags. They aren’t mandatory in Canada, but just about every car manufactured in the past 10 years has them—and you don’t want one bursting out in your kid’s face. Airbags deploy at speeds up to 300 kilometres per hour, says Katherine Hutka, health promotion specialist at Child Safety Link in Halifax and president of the Child Passenger Safety Association of Canada. “The airbag is positioned to protect a properly buckled adult but can do a lot of damage when it connects with a child.” This includes serious head injuries or a broken neck.

If there really is no alternative to having a kid under 13 in the front seat, you’ll need to disable your airbags. If your vehicle doesn’t have a deactivation switch or key (check your owner’s manual), you may be able to have it turned off through Transport Canada’s airbag deactivation program. Once the airbag is disabled, push the seat back from the dash as far as it will go (most fatal car accidents are front collisions, so the further your child is from the point of impact, the better). Make sure the seat belt fits low across the hips (not the belly) and snug across the collarbone, and ensure he is sitting up straight with his back against the seat throughout the journey.

There’s not much you can do to ease the sting of saying no to moving up, but some kids respond well to understanding why it’s so important for them to sit in the back. If all else fails, blame someone else. When Gigi, now 13, started pestering her mom to let her ride in the passenger seat at age 11, Rubio went searching for legislation that would give her a reason to say no. “The only thing I found was in our insurance,” she says. Like many policies, Rubio’s wouldn’t cover the kids for medical expenses incurred in a crash if they were sitting in the passenger seat before they were 13. “I told them, ‘When our insurance will cover you, then you can ride in the front.’” Harsh? Maybe. Effective? You bet.

Did you know?

If your kid isn’t asking to sit in the front, she may be begging to ditch the booster. But doing so too early puts her at risk of internal injuries and spinal fractures if a collision occurs. Keep the booster until you can answer “yes” to these five questions.

  1. Is she at least 145 centimetres tall?
  2. Do her knees bend over the edge of the seat when she’s sitting all the way back?
  3. Does the lap belt stay low and snug across the hips?
  4. Does the shoulder belt cross and rest on the chest and between the neck and shoulder?
  5. Can she sit this way for the whole trip without slouching?

Read more:
How to know when your kid can ride without his booster seat
Is it ever OK to leave your child alone in the car?
New car seat guidelines: The 65-pound rule

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