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Should children aged 13 and under be required to sit in a car’s back seat?

September 24, 2015 by Steven M. Gursten

Massachusetts bill proposes idea that NHTSA has advocated since 2011: ‘All children under 13 should ride in the back seat’

teen in back seat

Should children who are 13 years of age or younger be prohibited from sitting in a car or truck’s front seat and, thus, be required to sit in the back seat?

A Massachusetts lawmaker thought so.

According to a recent Yahoo Parenting article, “Should It Be Illegal for Kids to Ride in the Front Seat of a Car?” by Jennifer O’Neill:

Senate Bill 1848, which was introduced by the late Sen. Thomas Kennedy in January 2015, would require that kids under the age of 13 “be seated in the rear passenger seat of the motor vehicle whenever possible.”

No such bill has been proposed in Michigan, where I primarily practice auto accident law. But were such a bill to be proposed and enacted here, it would represent a significant change to our existing child car seat law and many others around the country. It would better protect children in the car and prevent more serious car accident injuries — so I don’t have to see devastated parents sitting across my desk.

Under Michigan’s existing law, only children “less than 4 years of age” must be positioned “in a rear seat” (assuming the vehicle has a rear seat and assuming that “all available rear seats are [not already] occupied by children less than 4 years of age”) (MCL 257.710d(1) and (2))

I think the Massachusetts bill’s proposal is excellent, smart and well-founded and should be given serious consideration by lawmakers where such a requirement is absent.

There’s broad-based support for keeping children under 13 safe by having them seated in the rear seat of cars and trucks, according to Ms. O’Neill’s Yahoo Parenting story:

  • “‘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.’”
  • “Janette Fennell, president and founder of the safety organization Kids and Cars, [says] … ‘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.’”

Specifically, here’s what NHTSA has said (at least since March 2011) about keeping kids under 13 in the rear seat:

Our lawyers would like to hear what our readers think. Should all other states be following Massachusetts’ lead – and the advice of experts like those at NHTSA? Is it time we put safety first by keeping our pre-teens in the “rear seat” of our cars and trucks?

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