Car Seats Series #3 : Location
You are getting ready for your first baby, YAY! You selected your car seat and know which direction it should face in the car. Now you need to know where to put your car seat in the car.
The safest place to put your car seat in the car (or for anyone to sit in the car) is the center of the back seat.
(Wow, that was a short post. OK, I’ll give you more…)
Where is the safest place to put a car seat?
A study published in Pediatrics, showed for children newborn to 3 years old and all installs being equal, sitting in the center rear seat is 43% safer than sitting on the side in the back. The rear center position will be the furthest from any impact in any type of crash.
The researchers found the most common location in the vehicle for a car seat was the rear passenger side (41% of parents put the child’s car seat here). We’re not sure why so many parents put your car seat there. Perhaps this is for ease of access and keeping an eye on the baby.
We often told new parents at the hospital, the center is the safest. But
- if they couldn’t get the car seat to install properly in the center, or
- they really wanted to use LATCH to install but couldn’t in the center, or
- there is a hump or too narrow of a center position to install a seat, or
- mom just had a cesarean and didn’t feel she could lean over to put baby in the center seat,
then to put baby on the passenger side. We recommend the passenger side in case you ever have to park on the street, you will be on the sidewalk side of the car putting baby in the car seat.
Never install a rear-facing seat in the front seat in front of an active airbag. Always keep children in car seats in the back seat unless absolutely necessary to have it in front, like in a two-seater car.
When is the center NOT the safest location?
Assuming you can get a good install in all seating positions, the center is the safest.
If you cannot get a good, safe installation in the center seating position, it is no longer the safest position. We really want to reiterate this point so let me say it another way. It is more important to have a good car seat installation than to be in the center seating position.
If the center seat is being challenging for you but you can get a good install in a side seat, install the seat in the passenger side seating position.
Note on LATCH
Often cars have LATCH for the two side seating positions in the back seat. Many times you cannot use one lower anchor from each side to install a car seat using LATCH in the center. (Every car is different and you need to read the owner’s manual for the vehicle.)
If this is the case in your car, you can use the seat belt to install the car seat in the center position even if it is a lap-only seat belt.
No, LATCH does not equal safer.
The purpose of LATCH was in hopes to make installing a car seat easier for parents. Personally, I think in many ways it backfired as it added more options to confuse matters.
My first child made it safe and sound in the center but now I have child number 2 on the way
There are two schools of thought here:
- Put the newborn in the center rear seating position as the baby is the most vulnerable in a crash.
- Put an older forward-facing child — assuming the older child is forward facing — in the center seat since rear-facing children are inherently safer in their rear-facing seat.
We are on the school of thought of number 1; put the most vulnerable, ie. youngest child, in the center. A short lesson on crash dynamics which affect this decision:
- The majority of crashes are frontal impact crashes.
- Being in the center rear seat is most beneficial of the more rare but more dangerous side impact crashes.
- Being in a rear-facing car seat is safer if the crash is front impact as the child’s head, neck and back are all being supported during the crash. It would stand to reason, the benefits of being in a rear-facing seat are less significant in a side impact crash.
There are often other variables involved so if there is any question, we recommend asking a Child Passenger Safety Technician, preferably in person with your car.
Wait. I can’t fit my infant car seat and my forward-facing convertible seat right next to each other.
If you can’t fit two seats right next to each other, you will have to use the two outside seats. There isn’t really a preferred side for the infant as far as crash safety is concerned. There is virtually no difference between driver’s side and passenger side in crash statistics.
One thing you may think about is, again, if you ever street park. If you do, you may want to put the child who takes the longest to get buckled in on the passenger side so you are in the street with the door open for as little time as possible. For instance, a toddler has to be put (or climb into — for those independent ones) the seat and get buckled, whereas a child in an infant carrier just gets popped into the base already installed in the car. Obviously the infant carrier is a quick open the door, pop it in, close the door and you’re out of the way of traffic.
Of course that’s assuming the infant carrier fits behind the driver’s seat in your car. Ugh, so many variables!
YAY! Both my children have been safe in the back seat but HELP number 3 is on the way
Much the same answer as going from one car seat to two in your vehicle. The challenge here often becomes whether or not 3 car seats will fit across the rear seat in your car. There are many narrow car seats on the market and the RideSafer vests to help in this situation. (Click here to get more information about the RideSafer Travel Vest. Psst, they are great for travel or carpools too!)
Sometimes this becomes a puzzle to find out which piece, ahem car seat, fits next to which other piece, err car seat and you can still fit your hand in between to buckle the seat belt. My advice, don’t try this game on a hot summer day.
What if I have a third row?
Middle center seat would still be farthest from any type of crash impact. In some vehicles the third row seat is over the rear axle, which theoretically could be provide some impact protection in a side impact crash.
Otherwise, same rules apply. Most importantly, get a proper install. One thing to consider when putting kids in the third row seat is how easily can you get back there to buckle them up. You can have older, more independent kids can sit back there and put younger kids in the middle row.
What about my older kids who are not in a car seat anymore?
The back seat is the safer place to ride in the car for anyone. Period.
So all children should remain in the back seat of the car until they are driving. No really. They should. As best practice, CPS technicians recommend keeping kids in the back seat until they are a minimum of 13 years old. Yup, sorry tweens.
Next up: Car Seats Series #4: Installation
By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004
Copyright 2021 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.
We originally published this post in August 2019. We updated the article for accuracy and comprehensiveness.
© amie durocher
The safest place for your child's car seat is in the back seat, away from active air bags. If the car seat is placed in the front seat and the air bag inflates, it could hit the back of a rear-facing car seat — right where the child's head is — and cause a serious or fatal injury.
We recommend the passenger side in case you ever have to park on the street, you will be on the sidewalk side of the car putting baby in the car seat. Never install a rear-facing seat in the front seat in front of an active airbag.
The car seat should always be installed in the back seat. That is the safest spot for your baby. If you can, put the car seat in the center seat. If not, it is fine behind either the driver or passenger side.
Why is the middle seat safest? Simply stated, the middle seat is the furthest from impact during a collision, as well as the furthest away from air bags. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) recommends that all children under the age of 13 ride in the back seat, ideally in the center.