Is my child ready for the front seat?

Q: At what age can my child sit in the front seat? I’ve heard it’s not just about height or weight but also about bone development.

A: The transitions out of a booster seat to a regular seat and from a rear seat to a front seat can be confusing because there are different state laws as well as various recommendations from national health organizations (such as the American Academy of Pediatrics) and government agencies, including the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration and the Minnesota Department of Public Safety.

All these organizations have aligned on at least some of their recommendations using evidence gathered from motor vehicle accidents involving children. Collectively, they recommend:

Once children outgrow their car seats by height or weight, they should remain in the rear seat of the vehicle in booster seats that assist with appropriately positioning a seatbelt across a child’s lap and across their shoulder.

Children are generally able to transition out of a booster seat at 4 feet 9 inches tall and between ages 8–12, but should still remain in the rear seat of the car, using the standard seat belt with a shoulder strap over the shoulder.

Once children are 13 years old (no weight criteria or further height criteria), they may sit in the front seat of a vehicle, using the standard seat belt with appropriate positioning.

The state laws are quite variable, however. In Minnesota, a vehicle may be stopped as a primary offense for young children not being secured in car seats ($ violation) or for older children not secured with seatbelts ($ violation). Minnesota’s statute for seatbelts (169.685) notes that children who are both younger than 8 years old and shorter than 4-foot-9 must be in a car seat or booster seat, but doesn’t place legal restrictions for transitioning from the rear seat to front seat after that age or above that height. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, laws in neighboring states are similarly permissive for front-seat passenger age in Wisconsin and North Dakota and more permissive in Iowa (age 6) and South Dakota (age 5).

Despite the permissiveness of some laws, parents should remember that motor vehicle accidents are the leading cause of death for children age 4 and older. So, although children may want to join you in the front seat of the car for entertainment value, the rear seat remains the safer location for kids age 12 and younger.

Dr. Gigi Chawla is a board-certified pediatrician and the chief of general pediatrics at Children’s Minnesota.