I've heard many opinions about how old a child should be before riding in the front seat of a car. I have a 10-year-old son who is tall for his age. Is it safe for him to ride up front? – Sharon on Salt Spring Island, B.C.
Once they've graduated from baby and booster seats, it's natural for children to want to ride shotgun in the car with mom or dad. But is this a good idea?
"All passengers, even adults, are safer in the back seat. In a collision, there's less likelihood of serious injuries if you're in the back, but children in particular are even more vulnerable because of their developmental stage, physically. Experts agree that children 12 and under should be in the back seat because they're even more vulnerable to severe injury," says Kristen Gane, program manager for Parachute Canada, an injury prevention organization.
British Columbia traffic law, along with all other provinces and territories, does not include an age restriction for passengers sitting in the front seat.
However, Transport Canada recommends that children under the age of 12 always ride in the back. Most cars have front-seat airbags that, if inflated during a crash or sudden stop, can injure small children.
"There are lots of statistics and studies on the damage airbags can do. If children are out of position and in the airbag deployment zone, they're being hit with something coming at them at about 300 km/h. You only have to attend one crash scene to understand why children are best off in the back seat," says Marg Deibert, a child passenger safety educator with BCAA's Road Safety Foundation.
Deibert adds that, when younger children ride up front, there's also a greater chance of driver distraction. "They're fidgety and what happens is they play with the knobs, fiddle with the seat, adjust the radio, and all kinds of things. It's a distraction to the driver, and there's a fear and concern that they'll be out of position."
There may be circumstances, such as an emergency or if you're transporting multiple children, when there is no choice but to place a child under the age of 12 in the front seat. In this case, position the oldest child up front, and put the seat as far back as it will go.
"You need to make sure that the seat is as far from the dash as possible, and that the lap/shoulder seat-belt is over the shoulders and across the chest, and never behind the back or under the arm, which is quite common," says Deibert.
It's not against the law for a 10-year-old to ride up front, but there is a greater risk of injury in this position. Make sure to explain to your son why it's best for him to sit in the back seat. If it's any consolation, remind him that one day he'll likely be driving you around, and telling you where to sit.
Send your automotive questions to Joanne Will at firstname.lastname@example.org