All About Child Passenger Safety

Installing your child's car seat properly and using it every time your son or daughter rides in the car is one of the best ways to help keep him/her safe in case of an accident.

As your baby gets bigger, you may wonder when it's time for a larger seat. Or, maybe you're unsure about when it's safe to face the seat forward. Below are some answers to frequently asked questions about child passenger safety.

When is it OK to switch a child to a front-facing car seat?

Babies should ride in rear-facing car seats until they're at least 2 years old or outgrow the highest weight or height recommended by the car seat manufacturer, according to the new 2011 recommendation from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). 

Babies have large heads, weak necks, and undeveloped spines, so they're more likely to suffer injuries in a car accident. Rear-facing car seats help spread the force of a crash more evenly. These seats also support the head, neck, and spine against the back of the car seat. This helps keep them from whipping forward in the event of a collision.

When should a child be moved to a bigger car seat?

Read the owner's manual that comes with your child's car seat, the AAP says. This will help you become familiar with the recommended size and weight limits.

If you don't have the manual, call the manufacturer or do a search online. Also, watch for these clues:

  • The child has reached the maximum weight or height allowed for the car seat.

  • His or her shoulders are higher than the topmost harness slots.

  • The child's ears have reached the top edge of the seat.

Do older children really need to use booster seats?

After a child outgrows a child safety seat, he/she still needs to use a booster seat. It helps position the lap belt correctly so that it's low across the thighs. It also makes the shoulder belt cross the middle of the chest and shoulder the way it should. Most children switch to booster seats at around 4 years of age. They should sit in booster seats until they're at least 8 years old. Once a child is at least 57 inches tall, an adult safety belt should fit fine without a booster.

When is it safe for a child to sit in a car's front seat?

Children younger than age 13 are safest in the rear seat of a vehicle.

Striking the dashboard, glove box, or windshield during a crash could cause serious injury. Even a passenger air bag could pose risks for a child because it deploys with such force. If an older child must sit up front, make sure that you push back the seat as far as possible. Newer cars have sensors that adjust the air bag for the size of the person in the passenger seat. For pickup trucks with no back seat, check your owner's manual to see if the vehicle is equipped with a switch to turn off the passenger side air bag.