One night last week, as we passed the mall on our way to a park, we stopped at a red light next to a giant SUV. A toddler/preschooler stood on the hump on the floor in the back, leaning his head between the two front seats to chat with the driver. As we watched, the kid bounced around, leaning forward, hopping up onto his own seat, then wiggling around some more. He was obviously unrestrained, and this was a busy road, a busy intersection, a busy time of day. (For locals: Manchester at Ballas shortly after 6:00 pm.)
I grabbed my armrest then turned automatically to check on my own children, ages 3 and 6, securely restrained in their five point safety harnesses. Paul was shocked. "Should I honk?" he asked. "Roll down my window and say something to her?"
No way. I'm sure she knows the law, or at least knows that toddlers are supposed to be in car seats.
But I've been wondering about the law myself, lately, and decided to look it up when we got home. Ellie will finish kindergarten in the a couple of weeks, and then she'll be a first grader. She's a pretty compliant kid, but she's getting a little tired of the car seat. (In the van she's in a full 5-point safety harness, but in our second car she has a simple backless booster. She'd prefer not to ride in either of them.) Periodically she asks me if she can just sit on the actual seat of the car. And the answer is always no.
But maybe soon? I thought. Because not only would it be a lot less hassle not to have to worry about car seats. Also, how long before she can sit up front with me?
The world of travel has changed dramatically since I was a kid. I know that the way we do things now is much safer, that fewer kids die in motor vehicle accidents, and I'm all for that. We always follow adult and child restraint laws, plus a little extra protection just to be safe (like keeping Ellie in the full car seat when she could legally just be in a booster).
But wasn't it nice when we got to sit next to our parents in the car, manipulate the car's heating, cooling, and radio? See out the same windows as the driver? Have easier conversations that don't involve hollering from the front seat to the back or turning around to look constantly? There's this huge barrier to intimacy we've constructed by keeping our kids "safe" in the back seat.
For how long? In Missouri:
- Children less than 4 years old or less than 40 pounds must be in an appropriate child safety seat.
- Children ages 4 through 7 who weigh at least 40 pounds must be in an appropriate child safety seat or booster seat unless they are 80 pounds or 4'9" tall.
- Children 8 and over or weighing at least 80 pounds or at least 4’9” tall are required to be secured by a safety belt or buckled into an appropriate booster seat.
Ellie might never be over 80 pounds and 4'9", so we're fortunate she'll age out of her booster in another couple of years. (Can you imagine carpooling a few second or third graders, all in car seats?! I guess I'll be experiencing that challenge soon enough.)
As for my question about when children can ride safely in the front seat, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says not until s/he's at least 13 years old. Thirteen! In Missouri, children under 12 years old must ride restrained in the back seat. But passenger safety organizations such as SafetyBeltSafe U.S.A. recommend going even further and keeping your child in the backseat until he's ready to drive himself.
You know what's safe? Never let your child in the car.
You know what's not safe? A kid whose first experience in the front seat is driver's ed.