Car Laws & Safety

When Can A Child Sit In The Front Seat In Pennsylvania?

Parenting comes with a lot of questions. One of the most common – “when can my kid sit in the front seat?” Maybe you have a seven-year-old who wants to sit up front like mommy and daddy – they ask every morning!

So, you start wondering, is now the time? If you live in Pennsylvania, the decision may not be up to only you. Parents and guardians have to follow the state’s rules for letting kids sit up front, and those rules include guidelines on age, weight, and height. 

The State of Pennsylvania recommends that no child under 13 rides in the car’s front seat. Furthermore, it is illegal for children under the age of 8 to ride upfront because they must be in a booster or car seat. 

Additionally, Pennsylvania recommended children between the ages of 8-12 remain in a booster seat if the child is under 80 lbs or shorter than 4’9’’ for added safety. Pennsylvania requires children younger than 8 years old who weigh more than 80 lbs or are taller than 4’9’’ to remain in a booster seat.

Keep reading for additional clarification on the Pennsylvania car seat laws and how to make the best car seating decisions for your children. 

Understanding the Pennsylvania Seatbelt and Car Seating Laws

Pennsylvania has specific laws regarding the use of car seats and seat belts for children in a vehicle. Specifically, Act 229 and Act 81 of the Pennsylvania Vehicle Code spell out these rules. 

In 2002, the Pennsylvania General Assembly passed Act 229 to dictate laws regarding car seats and seatbelt use for children. In 2011, the General Assembly passed Act 81 to dictate further seatbelt regulations for minors between the ages of 8 and 18 and adult passengers in a vehicle. Failure to abide by the rules held in both acts may result in a trip to court and fines. 

It’s important to note that Pennsylvania marks child seatbelt and car seat violations as primary offenses. Primary offenses require no other reason for cops to pull over a car to issue a citation for the violation.

Children’s safety violations differ from adult seatbelt violations. Adult violations are secondary offenses, meaning a cop must have an additional reason for pulling over a person before issuing a seatbelt violation. 

Why Following The “13” Rule Is Important 

Besides allowing a 12-year-old or younger child to sit up front breaks the law, following the 13-year rule is essential for protecting your child. The front seat airbags pose a severe risk to children under 5ft tall – they are designed for adults who weigh about 150 lbs, not children. Generally, children under 13 are not heavy or tall enough to sit safely upfront. 

How Sitting In the Backseat Protects a Child

Modern airbags release at about 200 mph, a speed that creates a force that can severely injure a child. Unless your 13+ child is 5 ft tall and weighing close to 150 lbs, the front seat is not suitable for them. Sitting in the backseat removes children from the airbag deployment zone, keeping the risk of 200+ mph force well away from the child. 

Additionally, sitting in the backseat removes children from the most common areas of impact in a vehicle. Front-impact crashes are the most common type of car crash, meaning that airbags are more likely to deploy in the case of an accident than not. Being in the backseat keeps children away from the shattering glass, airbags, and blunt force that the front seat experiences during a frontal impact. 

For a final thought on backseat riding, consider what a child can come into contact with during a crash. In the backseat, there’s the passenger or driver seat that they might come in contact with. If a child is sitting in the front seat, they may hit the dash, windshield, or airbag. The backseat simply has fewer risks than the front seat for any passenger, not just a child. 

When Can My Child Leave the Car Seat?

So your child isn’t quite ready to sit in the front seat; does that mean they need to be sitting in a car seat? That depends on the age of the child. The Pennsylvania Department of Transportation spells out the rules and guidelines for when children can entirely leave a car seat and what kind of car seat they need to be in until then. 

Rear-Facing (Ages 2 and Under)

For children 2 years of age and younger, parents must have them secured in a rear-facing car seat. A child around 2 years of age who has outgrown the rear-facing car seat, generally once they have reached over 35 lbs in weight, may transition to the next car seat type.

However, PennDOT and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommend that children over the age of 2 stay in rear-facing car seats until they outgrow the manufacturer’s max height and weight for the seat model (generally, this is around 35 lbs in weight and 36 inches tall.)

Forward Facing Seats and Booster Seat (Ages 3 To 8)

Forward-facing car seats and booster seats are not interchangeable. Booster seats are used to lift an older child to the appropriate height for a car’s seatbelt to protect the child correctly. Forward-facing car seats use straps nearly identical to a rear-facing car seat to protect younger children.

Any child older than 2 that has outgrown the manufacturer’s recommended max height and weight on a rear-facing car seat must remain in a forward-facing car seat or booster seat until at least the age of 8 per Pennsylvania law.

A Special Note On Car Seats Between the Ages of 8 to 12

If a child over the age of 8 is shorter than 4’9’’ and weighs less than 80lbs, a booster seat is recommended, but not required, for safety reasons.

While a child may be old enough to sit out of a car seat legally, smaller children experience greater risk when not in a booster seat. Again, it is not a requirement, but it does keep children safer than a seatbelt in a crash if they are not the recommended size for using a seatbelt alone. 

Why Are The PA Car Seat Regulations Important?

The regulations imposed by the General Assembly of Pennsylvania are designed to protect children. While the laws may seem excessive or annoying for parents with older children, they are backed by research from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. 

How Sitting In A Car Seat Protects a Child

Every year, 325 children under the age of 5 are saved by car seats. Seatbelts are designed to protect adult bodies. They do not provide adequate protection for the smaller, lighter frames of children – in fact; seatbelts can injure children in a crash. Car seats are designed with the more petite frame and weight of children in mind. 

Car accidents generate massive amounts of force that the human body of occupants is exposed to. The pressure exerted on their bodies by car accidents could kill them without a car seat for children. Rear-facing and forward-facing car seats absorb the energy from a crash and help keep a child’s body in a safe position to reduce and prevent injuries from a collision. 

A Special Note On Car Seat Safety

Car seats only work well if they are installed correctly. About 80% of car seats are installed or misused by parents. The best way to guarantee a car seat is installed and functioning correctly is to have it inspected.

The Pennsylvania State Police offer free car seat inspections and assistance with installation at most of their barracks. You can also get a car seat inspection through The PA Traffic Injury Prevention Project.

Are There Exceptions to Car Seat Rules?

The age brackets for car seat regulations in Pennsylvania are not bendable. The only exception is if a doctor issues a written certification stating that using a car seat or booster is impractical for the child and explains why. This certification needs keeping in the car in case an officer asks for it. 

But My Child Is Too Long For a Rear-Facing Car Seat – Shouldn’t I Have Them Face the Front Even If They Aren’t 2?

See also
When Can a Child Sit in the Front Seat in Illinois?

No, only move a child from a rear-facing car seat once they have exceeded the manufacturer’s recommended height and weight limits. Children can always sit cross-legged or up the back of the car’s seat. The leg position does not reduce the efficacy or ability of the car seat to protect the child. 

But My 6-Year-Old Child Weighs More Than 80 Lbs – Can’t They Leave The Car Seat?

No, if a child is under the age of 8, they must by law remain in a booster seat regardless of weight or height.

But My 7-Year-Old Child Is Over 4’9’’ – Why Can’t They Leave The Car Seat?

If a child under the age of 8 sits out of the car seat, regardless of height, the parent can be issued a citation under Pennsylvania law. 

How Can I Make The Front Seat Safer For My Child?

If your pre-teen is ready for the front seat, but you want to make it safer for them, there are options to help with that. 

First and foremost, move the passenger seat as far back from the airbag as possible to help reduce the risk of airbag impact. The closer a child sits to the dashboard, the more likely they will experience an airbag or dash injury to themselves in a crash.

Secondly, always have your child wear their seatbelt, and always have them wear it correctly. The correct position of a seat belt has the belt resting against their upper chest, not their neck, and the lap belt should lay across the lap, not the stomach. Do not let children wear only the lap belt with the chest belt behind their back. 

A Final Note On Graduating Kids to the Front Seat 

When it comes to letting the kids ride up front with the adults, keep the rule of 13 in mind. Never let a child under the age of 13 ride up front, and always consider maintaining children in the backseat even after that hit pre-teen years for safety.

Remember to follow the rules and regulations of the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation. Their car seat guidelines and seatbelt rules will keep your children safe in the car. 

Welcome to my car seat blog! As a mom of 3, I put together with other hard-working moms a highly informative one-stop car seat resource, full with many reviews and buyer guides. I hope you find it invaluable. Thank you for trusting me & my team! - Keren