Rules of the Road

Road Rules: What are the laws on child safety seats?

Fresno Police Department Officer John Belli demonstrates the proper way to buckle in a child using a booster seat. In Washington state, all children under the age of 8 or less than 4 feet 9 inches tall must be properly restrained in a child safety seat or booster seat while riding in a car.
Fresno Police Department Officer John Belli demonstrates the proper way to buckle in a child using a booster seat. In Washington state, all children under the age of 8 or less than 4 feet 9 inches tall must be properly restrained in a child safety seat or booster seat while riding in a car. Fresno Bee

Question: Could you please review the rules in regards to children riding in the front seat of vehicles? I know there are recommendations in vehicles, but are there actual age requirements by law? Also, along those same lines, are there legal age/height requirements for booster seats?

Answer: Child passenger restraint laws in Washington state used to be fairly complex, with breakdowns for ages and weights and types of car seats. In 2007 the state simplified the law, making three basic requirements for child restraints: 1) All children under the age of 8 or less than 4 feet 9 inches tall must be restrained in an appropriate child restraint system. That’s a fancy catch-all term for car seat or booster seat. 2) All kids over 8 years old or taller than 4-foot-9 have to wear a seat belt or use a booster seat. 3) Kids under the age of 13 are required to ride in the back seat whenever practical.

Let’s address part 3 first. For all occupants in a car, and especially smaller travelers, the back seat is safer than the front seat. That’s the logic behind requiring kids to ride in the back.

But what does the law mean by “whenever practical”? I’m not going to pretend to be a judge, but I can imagine that if you have a car with three seat belts in back and you buckle three 10-year-olds from your kid’s soccer team in the back seat, you’d be OK with buckling a fourth teammate into the remaining front seat. On the other hand, buckling your 10-year-old up front because you don’t feel like moving the hockey bag your teenager left in the back seat doesn’t qualify.

Part one of the requirements creates an important question: What is the appropriate car seat for my kid? There are so many choices: rear-facing, forward-facing, infant, booster, combination, all-in-one, convertible (and that doesn’t mean it has a removable top).

Several organizations that focus on child safety have made recommendations on which seat is appropriate given a child’s age and size. Both the American Academy of Pediatrics and the Safety Restraint Coalition recommend that kids ride in a rear-facing seat until at least age 2 and until the child is too big for the seat. After the child outgrows the rear-facing seat he or she should switch to a forward-facing seat until, again, the child outgrows the seat. Then it’s time for the booster seat until age 8 or a height of 4-foot-9.

Now for the hard part —making sure the seat is installed properly. One study showed that 80 percent of car seats are installed incorrectly. That’s not really surprising; if you’re a parent you know how complicated it can be. It takes a four-day class to become a certified car seat technician, so I’m not going to attempt to explain proper installation, but if you’re concerned I’d recommend going to the Safety Restraint Coalition website at 800bucklup.org and finding a local car seat checkup.

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 previous columns or to ask a question, go to bellinghamherald.com/news/traffic/rules-of-the-road/.

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