Legislation varies from state to state regarding the issue of seat belts, child restraints and when a child may be allowed to sit in the front seat. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends all children under age 13 sit in the back seat of a motor vehicle.
Rhode Island's laws state that children who are less than seven (7) years old must be transported in a federally approved restraint seat in the back seat of the vehicle. They require you follow instructions for use described in the restraint seat manual for age and weight.
The Kentucky Transportation Cabinet notes there is not a state law governing the age of front seat passengers but that the risk of injury is greater in the front seat for children, with or without an airbag. Research shows it is best for children ages 12 and under to ALWAYS ride in the back seat so that is their recommendation as well.
New York State notes that although NYS does not have a law preventing children from sitting in the front seat, it is highly recommended that all children age 12 and under ride properly restrained in the back seat. Researchers estimate that just by putting a child in the back seat instead of the front seat reduces the chance of injury and death by more than 30 percent.
NYS also says that infants in rear-facing car seats should never be placed in the front seat of a car with a passenger-side air bag. While air bags provide effective protection for adult passengers, the great forces produced by an inflating air bag can injure or even kill a child. In fact, the safest place for children of all ages to ride is in the rear seat of the vehicle. If there is no other option, children in forward-facing child seats can ride in the front seat, but the passenger seat should be placed as far back from the dashboard (and air bag) as possible.
California law (CA Vehicle Code 2736) basically states that any child under the age of six weighing less than 60 pounds must be secured in a federally approved child passenger restraint system and ride in the back seat of a vehicle. The VC notes that a child under the age of six weighing less than 60 pounds may ride in the front seat of a vehicle when:
- There is no rear seat or the rear seats are either side-facing jump seats or rear-facing seats.
- The child passenger restraint system cannot be installed properly in the rear seat.
- All rear seats are already occupied by children under the age of 12 years.
- A medical reason requires the child to ride in the front seat.
A child may not ride in the front seat of an airbag-equipped vehicle if the child:
- Is under one year of age.
- Weighs less than 20 pounds.
- Is riding in a rear-facing child passenger restraint system.
The NHTSA site says that the rear seat is the safest place for children of any age to ride. An infant in a rear-facing child seat must ride in the back seat if your vehicle has a passenger air bag. Make sure that everyone in the front seat is properly buckled up and seated as far back from the air bags as is reasonably possible when they do reach an age in which to sit in the front.
They also advise drivers to make sure that all young children are properly secured in an age and size appropriate restraints. The NHTSA has an Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-DASH-2-DOT (1-888-327-4236) which you can call to get more information, especially about air bags and young passengers in the front seat since sometimes it is recommended to turn off the airbag.
To find out your state's laws regarding when or if a child age 4 to 14 can sit in the front seat check with your Department of Motor Vehicles.