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Is it safe to put a front-facing car seat at the front passenger seat? Do I have to disable the airbag first?

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Ignoring the safety issues, you should check local laws. In Australia, it is not legal to have a child seat in the front seat unless you have no rear seats (eg: ute or van). –  dave Jan 23 at 23:12
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I recommend finding out from the seat and car manufacturers if you feel there is any question about the safety of a product you intend to use in addition to checking on legalities in your area. If there is available space in a back seat it is hands-down the safest spot for anyone in a car seat. If you are having trouble getting everyone to fit, check out this question as it may be helpful to you. –  balanced mama Jan 25 at 17:16

2 Answers 2

First off, this is not medical or legal advice, and no answer from a site like this should be relied upon; ask your pediatrician for the best advice.

It is never safer for a child to sit in the front seat. (Similarly, it is never safer for an adult; the rear seat is simply safer in general.) The recommendations of child safety organizations are generally they should be in the back at least until 13, if not longer (see this page for example).

However, if your child must ride in the front seat, disabling the passenger airbags is certainly a must. You may be able to switch them off, and if not your car dealer or mechanic may be able to install a switch to turn them off.

Some additional information, from the American Academy of Pediatrics, who published updated recommendations for car safety for children:

  • Studies showed a 40% to 70% reduction in fatalities from children under 13 riding in the rear seat. Over 13 it didn't seem to make much difference.
  • Even of side collisions, the rear seat still provided a 62% reduction in serious injuries compared to the front seat.

There are a number of studies mentioned in the article, some fairly recent, backing those numbers.

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While the front seats are (closer to) the probable impact zone, they usually have airbags, while rear seats usually don't. While I agree that airbags and rear-facing seats don't mix, is that true for front-facing seats as well? The link you provided seems to conflate both types of seats. Also, the third row is extremely unsafe as in the case of a front-to-rear collision, as there is no crumple zone whatsoever. –  SQB Jan 23 at 16:32
    
I am not a safety expert, but all of the material I've read (the article above is pretty clear to me, only front-facing are even remotely considered in front) says no airbags. Primarily this is because (from what I've read) airbags are built for adults - so they fire at the right height for an adult. For a child this might be right at their face, unless the carseat is raising them to the appropriate level, which it may or may not; and in a carseat, you're not only higher but further forward, meaning you are closer to the airbag and receive a more forceful impact. –  Joe Jan 23 at 16:35
    
In any event, everything I've ever read says airbags or not, the front is less safe, so I will stick with that for my kids until they're driving or close to it. –  Joe Jan 23 at 16:38
    
Added some additional information from the AAP, which is pretty much the definitive source for the US (your pediatrician will almost certainly use this as their reference). –  Joe Jan 23 at 17:09
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For babies the airbag has to be disabled because after deflating (airbags inflate & deflate in rapid succession) it is very likely to cover the baby's head and suffocate it. For older children Joe probably got it right. –  gregopet Jan 29 at 10:12

Yes it should be safe, and no, you don't have to disable the airbag in most countries, although you'd have to check the laws in the country where you live.

According to this official Dutch source (in Dutch), children under 18 and smaller than 1,35m. have to use an appropriate car seat. Rear-facing car seats are only allowed on seats (front or rear) without an active airbag (so it should either be deactivated or absent altogether), but front-facing car seats have no such restrictions. This applies more or less to the entire EU, although some countries use different height or age restrictions, as evidenced by this official UK source, that puts the age limit at 14.

As I expect these laws to be based on safety, I assume it's safe enough to use a front-facing car seat in the front seat.

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I think it's a very bad idea to assume laws (passed in democracies or similar) to be particularly based on safety. Laws are based on politics first; and beyond that, laws tend to be as permissive as possible - they allow you to choose to do things that aren't terribly safe, as long as they're not REALLY unsafe. –  Joe Jan 23 at 16:39
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I'm worried by your answer. You say that the page asserts conditions for use of a car seat and when an airbag must be disabled, but that doesn't leap to the converse: that all other conditions are safe -- it really just means that certain situations are alarming to those authorities. –  Jeremy Miller Jan 23 at 18:56

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