The state of California doesn’t only require that children under the age of 8 years old and under 4’9” (57”) be secured in a car seat or booster seat.
The state also requires those car seats or booster seats be secured in the BACKSEAT of vehicles.
Due to this, California has a de facto front seat law.
Front Seat Requirement California
According to California’s child restraint laws, children must ride in car seats or booster seats in the backseats of vehicles until they reach ONE of the following:
- Front Seat Age California: 8 years
- Front Seat Height California: 57” (4’9”)
At age 8 or when they reach 4’9”, children can legally ride in the front seat with a regular seatbelt.
However, children under 4’9” are at more risk of injury from a regular seatbelt than those 4’9” and taller, and studies have shown airbags are a risk to children under age 13 during collisions.
So, the state recommends keeping your child in each stage of child restraint (rear-facing, forward-facing, booster seat) for as long as possible, keeping your child in a booster seat until they reach the safe seatbelt age of 4’9”, and keeping them in the backseat until age 13.
Exceptions To Front Seat Law in California
While the safest place for a child to be in a vehicle is in a car seat or booster seat in the backseat, there are some exceptions to California’s front seat law.
It is acceptable to restrain your child in a car seat or booster in the front seat if:
- You are in a vehicle with single-row seating, like a sports car or pick-up truck.
- The seatbelts in the backseat are broken or there is another issue with the vehicle that makes restraint in the back dangerous.
- You are transporting multiple children of car seat/booster seat age, and all backseat seatbelts are in use with other car seats or booster seats (though, this is highly discouraged and the oldest child should ride in front).
If you do have to transport a child in the front seat of a vehicle, you must to turn off the airbag to prevent increased risk of injury, especially with rear-facing car seats.
General Front Seat Law FAQ
When can a child sit in the front seat?
Legally, the age (or height) at which a child can sit in the front seat varies from state to state.
Some states have no laws preventing children from sitting in the front seats of vehicles regardless of age (even while still in car seats).
When it comes to safety, however, a child should not sit in the front seat of a vehicle until they are at least tall enough to properly fit a standard seatbelt (4’9”).
But the longer you can keep them in the backseat the better.
The CDC recommends all children under the age of 13 sit in the backseat of vehicles.
What is the purpose of front seat laws?
Studies have shown children under the age of 13 are safest in the backseats of cars.
More specifically, the center backseat is the safest place in a vehicle for a child.
This is why some states have laws forbidding children from riding in the front seat of vehicles until they reach a specific height or age.
Why is the front seat unsafe for children?
There are two main reasons the front seat of a car is unsafe for children.
One of the reasons children fare better in the backseat of a vehicle during an accident is because head-on collisions are one of the deadliest types of car crash.
Though they make up only 2% of all car crashes, head-on collisions account for over 10% of car crash deaths. (Rollovers are the only other accident type with such a disproportionate fatality rate for those inside the vehicle.)
Since the back seat is furthest from the front of the vehicle, it is the safest place to be in a head-on collision.
The second reason children fare better in the backseat of a vehicle during an accident is because the safety devices installed in cars to protect passengers during a collision are designed for adults.
Since airbags are designed for adults and not children, the impact of an air bag when deployed can cause more harm to a child than the accident itself.
Research conducted by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia found “children exposed to air bags during a crash are twice as likely to suffer a serious injury.”
The Safest Place For Kids Is The Backseat
While back seat laws and recommendations might seem inconvenient (especially if you only have a pick-up truck), these laws are based in research.
So, follow California state law and keep your kid under age 8 in the backseat.
Or, even better, follow CDC guidelines and keep them back there until they turn 13.
And, before that, follow California’s laws regarding car seats and booster seats.
For more on California’s car seat laws see California Car Seat Laws.
For more on California’s booster seat laws see California Booster Seat Laws.