Rules of the Road

Your kids weren’t born in the same century as your classic car – can they ride in it?

Question: This week we have a couple questions about kids in vintage cars: I have a 1939 Packard, which of course has no seat belts. I’d like to be able to give my grand kids a ride in the car, but without seat belts I can’t install a carseat. Is it legal to let a child under 12 ride in a car without seat belts?

Summer is here and the grand kids want to ride with me in my convertible 1964 Mustang. The car is factory complete with four lap only seat belts. I have three grandchildren all in booster seats. What is the law regarding the four of us going for a ride? With only two lap belts in the back seat, can one of them ride in the front seat?

Answer: When the weather gets nice, the vintage automobiles come out. And who owns vintage automobiles? Grandpas, mostly. I don’t have any hard data to prove that, but I have been to car shows, and let me tell you, if the car was built before 1970, it’s probably owned by a grandpa.

As cool as they are, old cars didn’t get much engineering in the safety department. Manufacturers weren’t required to install seat belts until 1964, and those were just lap belts for the front seats. I don’t know what the thinking was on that decision; keep the adults up front safe while we let the kids bounce around in the back?

By 1968 the legislators corrected their oversight and required seat belts for all seating positions and added shoulder harnesses for the front seats.

If you have a car from the pre-seat belt era or the lap belts only era, how do you legally transport kids? Based on a reading of Washington’s seat belt and car seat laws, I think I can deduce an overriding philosophy: do the best you can with what you’ve got.

To explain, I’ll review the general rules about seat belts and child passenger restraints and then consider what to do if you can’t make your car comply with those rules.

Vehicle occupant restraint laws are found in two sections in the Revised Code of Washington (RCW). One section is for occupants 16 and older; the other is for passengers under the age 16. Both of these questions can be answered from the section on passengers under age 16, but before we get to that, let’s start the requirements for those 16 and older.

We know that we’re all required to wear a seat belt “in a properly adjusted and securely fastened manner.” That means using the shoulder belt instead of tucking it behind you.

But if a car doesn’t have enough (or any) seat belts for all the occupants in the car, there is an exception to the law. The RCW states that it only applies to vehicles that meet the safety belt standards set in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR).

As important as the CFR is in setting safety standards, I wouldn’t recommend reading it unless you are attempting to be rendered unconscious from boredom. Simply explained, if your car was built prior to a specific seat belt requirement, you’re not obligated to comply with that requirement. If your car never had seat belts, you won’t get in trouble for not using something that was never there.

Now for the kids. First let’s review the general rules: All kids are required to be properly secured in the car. For kids under age 8 or shorter than 4-feet, 9-inches, that means a car seat or booster seat. Kids under the age of 13 ride in the back seat.

If we stopped there, it would seem illegal to transport kids in a vehicle without seat belts or in the front seat of the car.

However, like the law for adults, the law for children has some exceptions, beginning by stating that child passenger restraint rules don’t apply in situations where the car isn’t required to have seat belts.

In the case of the 1939 Packard, the kids can legally ride with grandpa without car seats or seat belts. Mom and dad might have a different perspective, but you’re okay with the law.

For the owner of the 1964 Mustang, there’s an addendum to the rule about kids riding in the back seat. It adds, “where it is practical to do so.”

When you already have two kids in booster seats secured by the two back seat belts, it would be impractical to try to put another kid back there when there’s an available seat belt up front. You can put all three grand kids in the car with you, properly secured in their booster seats, without putting yourself in jeopardy of getting in trouble with the law.

Now that we’ve looked at the legality of having kids riding in the front seat or without seat belts, let’s acknowledge that while legal, it’s not ideal.

I’m not suggesting you shouldn’t give your grand kids a ride; just that it’s important to consider the risks and how you can mitigate them.

The best way is with your driving. I’m a habitual (some might say compulsive) seat belt wearer, but I don’t depend on it to keep me safe. For that I rely on my driving.

Safe driving strategies decrease the likelihood that you’ll ever need to depend on the safety features of your car. If your car doesn’t have safety features, your driving becomes exponentially more important.

Road Rules is a regular column on road laws, safe driving habits and general police practices. Doug Dahl is the Target Zero Manager for the Whatcom County Traffic Safety Task Force. Target Zero is Washington’s vision to reduce traffic fatalities and serious injuries to zero by 2030. For more traffic safety information visit Ask a question.