Is there a really good reason why my grandchildren have to be in the backseat? I feel like a chauffeur!

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2002

Dear Tom and Ray:

Suddenly, I'm 59 years old, a grandfather and a grumpy old man. Here's what I'm grumpy about. I have a grandson who was born three months premature. At his current rate of growth, he'll be in a rear-facing car seat when he goes to his senior prom. When I'm driving, I hate not being able to see how he's doing back there. I also have an 8-year-old granddaughter. She doesn't weigh enough to sit in the front seat with me. I feel like buying a chauffeur's hat. Since road noise interferes with my hearing, we don't talk much. This is why I'm writing to you: Please tell me that there are sound, logical, research-based reasons for my grandkids being banished to the back seat. Are they a lot safer back there? Does facing backward make that big a difference in a collision? Could you refer me to the research that resulted in rules that sound completely arbitrary to me, especially given the wide range of car designs? With this information, I think I could be a lot less grumpy. -- John

RAY: I know how you feel, John. When we were kids, I had to STAND in the back of the car, because there wasn't room for me to sit down. My brother, my sister and my grandma took up the whole back seat.

TOM: We had no seat belts, and metal dashboards. And nobody worried about him standing back there. In fact, sometimes we'd strap him to the roof when he wouldn't shut up.

RAY: I guess I was lucky, and now we know a lot more about safety. The recommendations for transporting kids are to put all kids under 12 in the back seat. Infants under 20 pounds go in a rear-facing child seat. And once they're a year old and more than 20 pounds, you can put them in a forward-facing child seat.

TOM: Where did these recommendations come from? From a large amount of unfortunate crash history, John. The recommendations are issued by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. And even before NHTSA first issued child-seat rules in the late 1960s, federal regulators had been studying accidents and crash tests, as well as consulting with pediatricians and emergency-room doctors. Today, they even have an infant crash-test dummy, as well as a 6-year-old dummy, to run tests on.

RAY: Can they run tests on how long the infant can go without a diaper change? I'd be interested to know that.

TOM: The reason for the rear-facing child seat is that pediatricians concluded that an infant's neck simply can't take the stress in a crash, and the neck will snap. So the back of the seat is needed to support the neck.

RAY: And at the age of a year, and at 20 pounds or so, they think most kids' muscles and bones are strong enough to handle a restrained, forward-facing crash without their necks snapping.

TOM: Many years of crash history have shown that kids are always safer in the back seat, where they're farther away from the windshield and any penetration by the engine or other components in a front-end crash. Plus, with dual front air bags now mandatory (22 kids have been killed by air bags in rear-facing child seats in the front seat), you don't want a little kid where he or she can get killed by an exploding air bag.

RAY: You're right that there are differences in cars and differences in kids. And these guidelines do get reviewed and adjusted when evidence suggests that they should be. But these are the best recommendations of an agency whose job it is to study crashes.

TOM: So what to do, John? I think you guys need headsets. Walkie-talkie headsets, like astronauts use. You can talk to the kids, it'll help you hear better -- you can crank yours up to 10 -- and the kids will love it. What could be cooler than putting on spaceman headsets and going for a ride with Grandpa?

Get the Car Talk Newsletter

Got a question about your car?

Ask Someone Who Owns One