Should It Be Illegal for Kids to Ride in the Front Seat of a Car?

Jennifer O'Neill

Older kids totally annoyed at having to ride in the back seat? Better get used to it, in Massachusetts at least, where new legislation may make riding in the front under the age of 13 illegal. (Photo: Anna Peisl/Corbis) 

Like the driver in “The Wheels on the Bus” song croons, kids in Massachusetts may have to “move on back” when riding in the car. That’s what state Senate bill 1848 (introduced by the late Sen. Tom Kennedy in January) would require, mandating that drivers seat kids under age 13 “in the rear passenger seat of the motor vehicle whenever possible.” 

Related: The Little Thing You Can Do With a Car Seat to Save a Child’s Life

And in a Transportation Committee hearing on Wednesday, proponents lined up, urging legislators to move forward with the mandate, which would impose a $25 fine for drivers violating the law. Current law, according to an article from the State House News Service, only requires that kids under 13 be “secured by a child passenger restraint or a properly adjusted seatbelt.” (Children under 8 or 57 inches or shorter “must be secured by child passenger restraint,” the report also details.) 

Related: Facebook Photo Could Have Saved Kid’s Life

“We know from data that the back seat is at least 40 percent safer for children under 13, especially the middle of the back seat,” AAA Northeast legislative affairs director Mary Maguire (who supported the bill with written testimony submitted on Wednesday) tells Yahoo Parenting. “The back seat offers greater protection and decreases the possibility of being injured by the front-seat airbag. NHTSA [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration], the AAP [American Academy of Pediatrics], and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] all recommend that children stay in the back seat until age 13.” 

Boston Children’s Hospital supports the bill, and its director of state government relations, Kathryn Audette, tells Yahoo Parenting that the rule will make a huge difference for a “small change to what parents should already be doing.” The research that the hospital staff performed regarding the issue “all says pretty much any passenger in the back tends to be safer, but particularly children with developing bodies, as airbags can really hurt kids and in some instances cause life-threatening injuries in accidents involving front deployment.” Kids in back “as long as possible is best practice,” she adds, “as we at Children’s hear about too many cases of kids under 13 riding in front seeing traumatic injuries that could have been prevented if they were just correctly buckled up and sitting in the back seat.” 

Spelled out like that, the mandate seems like a no-brainer. But there are still many who don’t follow that advice. As New York Times Motherlode columnist KJ Dell’Antonia shared in her post “When Can a Child Ride in the Front Seat?” in 2012, “I can’t say this for certain, but based on my observations at school drop-offs and around town, my son (who just turned 11) is the only child in his class still riding in the back seat of the car.” 

Ignoring kids’ complaints, there’s also the practicality question of how often it’s just not feasible to keep older kids relegated to the rear. “It might not always be possible for children under the age of 13 to ride in the back seat,” Audette acknowledged in testimony at the Transportation Committee’s July 15 hearing. Exhibit A: when a parent is driving around half of the under-12 soccer team or is piloting a pickup truck that doesn’t even have a back seat. 

Then there’s the criticism that by requiring parents to place kids in a specific seat, legislators are butting in where they don’t belong. “Overreaching intrusive government,” blasted one commenter in response to a local news story about the bill. “The assumption is Massachusetts residents are all children.” 

But Janette Fennell, president and founder of the safety organization Kids and Cars, disputes that. “This is a great bill,” she tells Yahoo Parenting. “I don’t think it’s extreme at all. This will help raise awareness — and there shouldn’t be any mystery about the fact that you must be in the back seat and buckled up back there. I tease people that if I could drive my car from the back seat, I would, because it’s that much safer.” 

Maguire agrees and asks critics of the legislation to remember that “car crashes are the leading killer of young children and teens.” With that in mind, she declares, “We should welcome any opportunity to keep our children safer in the car.” 

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