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When Is A Child Old Enough For the Front Seat?

When is it time for a child to ride in the front seat? #teachablemoments #inspiringquotes

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Not that seat yet — my ten-year-old son pretending to drive.

“And you’re still riding in the back seat of the car?”  my son’s pediatrician asked.  Actually, he didn’t so much as ask but firmly remind.

We were nearing the end of the appointment, the part where Ryan’s pediatrician reviewed safety issues including smoke detectors and car safety.

Ryan nodded. 

“Yes, I said. “But we wanted to ask you about that. We’ve noticed many of Ryan’s friends riding in the front seats of their cars, and we were wondering what the rule was for that.”

Dr. K. answered, “Our office has a different recommendation than what the law says is okay.”

According to California law, children are legally allowed to ride in the front passenger seat of a car once they are at least eight years old. (Ryan is ten). However, every state has their own law regarding front-seat passengers, while the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends children not ride in the front seat until they are at least thirteen years old.

“The doctors in our office,” Ryan’s pediatrician continued, “believe a child doesn’t need to sit in the front seat until they’re ready to start driving. There’s no point. It’s just safer in the back.” He paused, before going on. “Just last week, one of my patients, a twelve-year-old, rode in the front seat for the first time. His father was involved in a car accident. My patient broke twenty-seven bones.”

I gasped. Ryan’s eyes got big.

Dr. K. tried to put us at ease. “He’ll be okay. But if he had been sitting in the back seat, there’s a very good chance he wouldn’t have broken any bones.”

I looked at Ryan. “Okay then, still in the back seat,” I said. Ryan nodded.

When is it time for a child to ride in the front seat? #teachablemoments #inspiringquotes

When I was growing up, I couldn’t wait to sit in the front seat, but my impatience was largely motivated by my lack of comfort. My mom drove a two-door hatchback. As I got older and taller, it became increasingly inconvenient and difficult for me to climb into the back seat.

My son, though, doesn’t have that problem. Both my husband and I drive four-door sedans. So it’s not a matter of comfort for Ryan, but more like another sign, another visible marker of him getting older.

Parents across the country haven’t reached a consensus regarding the “right” age when a child can safely ride up front. There are those who argue for the all-around improved safety of car travel, the actual low risk involved with a child riding up front, and the missed opportunities for both more meaningful conversations when you and your child are both up-front as well as the missed chance for your child to observe your driving techniques before he/she is ready to get behind the wheel.

Before he left the exam room, Dr. K. took it a step further. Looking at Ryan, he said, “As you get older, you’re going to see many of your friends doing things that you and your family don’t do. You don’t have to want to copy them. Let them copy you. Let them see you, set the example for them, and then maybe they’ll think, ‘Ryan sits in the back. I wonder why. Maybe I should find out and try that.’ “

On the drive home, Ryan and I talked about the appointment — the short wait, the painful prick on the tip of his finger to test for iron levels in his blood.

“I can’t believe so many of my friends sit in the front seat,” Ryan told me.

“I know,” I answered.  “That’s what their family decided.”

“Yep. And our family chooses the back seat,” Ryan said.

That’s our family’s decision. But I’m curious to hear from other readers. What age did you allow (or do you plan to allow) your child to ride in the front seat? Share your comments in the section below.



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1 comment

  1. John Borak 16 May, 2018 at 09:41 Reply

    I grew up in the age before seat belts. My earliest (and best) memories of being in a car are of sitting in my father’s lap as he drove. My little hands were on the wheel. at 10 and 2. My father’s sun-bronzed arms surrounded me and his big, calloused hands covered mine. He smelled of cigarettes and sweat. I never felt more protected and loved than in those moments. Our positions reversed as I grew larger and no longer fit on his lap: I sat behind him on a motorcycle, my arms wrapped around him as we rode on roads both large and small. We did not wear helmets then. In fact, safety gear did not enter public consciousness for another decade or more. Was the risk worth it? In my case, yes. The best, most rewarding events of my childhood relationship with my father, who was at best a difficult man, could not have occurred if I had been relegated to the separation from him imposed by measures meant to protect my body. To me it was worth the risk.

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