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Can my child sit in the front seat?

Different states have different rules, but generally speaking, it is OK for a child to sit in the front seat if they are more than 145cm tall.

What age can a child sit in the front seat?

The simple answer to that question is seven years old, but it is clear that there are two things road-safety authorities do not like - simple answers and agreeing with each other over things like car seat laws in Australia.

So the answer is more like “seven, if they’re tall enough, but possibly not until they’re at least 12, and even then, it might be wise to keep them in the back until they’re 16 years old”.

It’s almost alarming to consider how many parents might be unknowingly ignoring the advice in Victoria, NSW and South Australia, however, because the accepted wisdom that children can legally sit in the front seat of a car no longer applies in those states.

BMW 428i with child seat. BMW 428i with child seat.

Instead, they advise that children should be at least 145cm tall, rather than any particular age, to be allowed the great privilege (at least in a kid’s mind) of sitting up front. And it’s important to remember that being seven years old and 145cm tall very rarely correlate. In fact, the average child does not hit 145cm until 11 or 12 years old, which means those states have actually pushed the age of front-seat occupancy forward by as much as five years.

It is, however, advice rather than a strict law. Or, to summarise how South Australian authorities explain it: child-restraint laws are based on age rather than height or weight because this is easier for parents to follow, but the fact is that height and weight should also be considered when making a choice about what kind of restraint or booster to use, and where your child sits.

 

At what age is it safe for children to sit in the front seat of a car?

Research does show that children under the age of 12 years old are safer travelling in the back seat, which indicates that our laws relating to booster seat use and at what age it should stop have been out of kilter for some time.

Children aged from four to seven must not be in the front row of a car that has two or more rows of seats unless all other seats are also occupied by passengers who under the age of seven, or there is no other seat they can sit in.

Kids aged from four to seven must also use an approved and properly fastened child restraint with an inbuilt harness, or be using an approved booster seat in combination with a lap and sash type seatbelt.

This is how the South Australian authorities explain it: “Car seats and seatbelts are designed for adult bodies, so not all children will fit an adult seatbelt when they reach their seventh birthday.  Research shows that an adult lap-sash seatbelt will not generally fit a child properly until they are at least 145cm tall, often around 10-12 years of age.”

 

Is your child ready for an adult seatbelt?

If you answer "yes" to all five questions below (provided by the SA government), then your child is ready to move out of a booster seat and into an adult seatbelt. If you answer "no" to one or more, then they still need a booster seat.

Can the child sit with their back against the vehicle seat back?
Do the child's knees bend in front of the edge of the seat?
Does the sash belt sit across the middle of the shoulder?
Is the lap belt sitting low across the hips touching the thighs?
Can the child stay seated in this position for the whole trip?

The reason for this, and the reason there is some debate over how old, or tall, you need to be to use a seatbelt without a booster seat, is that lap-sash belts are designed for people of average size, meaning they only work for people of around 145cm in height and above.

At that point, in a seated position, the seatbelt starts to fit you properly, meaning that it sits across the strongest parts of your body, and will not snap across your throat in an accident, which is obviously very dangerous.

Children using a normal seatbelt who are too short can slump down below its protective areas, which is dangerous not only for their necks, but for their stomach area. The seatbelt should be fitting across your hips, not your abdomen.

The other issue with sitting in the front seat of a modern car, of course, is that they have passenger airbags, which are larger than driver’s side ones and fire out of the dash with significant force. If the person in the passenger seat is not properly restrained by their seatbelt, then the airbag, too, could cause significant injuries.

Let’s take a look at how each state deals with booster seat age and car rules in Australia.

 

Queensland

Children in Queensland must use an approved child-seat restraint, booster seat or booster cushion, secured with an adult lap-sash seatbelt, from the ages of four to seven. 

Children aged seven and over may sit in a standard seat with an adult seatbelt, or they may continue to use the other options. 

The QLD site is here.

 

Western Australlia

The rules in WA are essentially the same, with a slight difference in the wording, pointing out that children “aged 7 years to 16 years are either in a booster seat with lap sash seatbelt or a seatbelt”. 

Essentially, the WA authorities are pointing out that it might be wise to at least consider the continued use of a booster seat right up to the age of 16.

Children seven years and over can sit in any seating position, provided they are suitably restrained.

The WA site is here.

 

South Australia

The South Australian approach also recognises that we should be treating children as in need of more safety consideration right up to the age of 16, stating that “all children under 16 years of age must be restrained in a suitable approved restraint that is properly adjusted and fastened”.

They go on to add that children over the age of seven “may legally sit in the front seat of a motor vehicle that has two or more rows of seats, providing they are appropriately restrained for their size. However children are at a greater risk of serious injury when travelling in the front seat. The National Child Restraint Guidelines recommend children 12 years of age and under are safest in the rear seat, regardless of the type of restraint they are using.”

The SA regulators point out that child-restraint laws are based on age rather than height or weight because this is easier for parents to follow, but the fact is that height and weight should also be considered when making a choice about what kind of restraint or booster to use, and where your child sits.

Children aged seven to 16 “should continue to use an approved child restraint until they are tall enough to wear an adult seatbelt correctly, even if they can legally sit in the front seats. Car seats and seatbelts are designed for adult bodies, so not all children will fit an adult seatbelt when they reach their seventh birthday.  Research shows that an adult lap-sash seatbelt will not generally fit a child properly until they are at least 145cm tall, often around 10-12 years of age.”

SA site is here.

 

NSW

The road-safety authorities in NSW follow a similar set of advisory notes, and point to National Child Restraint Laws for children aged four to seven being in restraints or on approved booster seats. 

The advice for those aged seven to 16 is that “those who are too small to be restrained by a seatbelt properly adjusted and fastened are strongly recommended to use an approved booster seat”.

And further, following what only sounds like common sense, NSW advises that: “If your child is too small for the child restraint specified for their age, they should be kept in their current child restraint until it is safe for them to move to the next level. If your child is too large for the child restraint specified for their age, they may move to the next level of child restraint.”

They also point to 145cm or taller being the suggested minimum height for using an adult seatbelt.

The NSW site is here.

 

Victoria

The Victorians follow the same rules as everyone else for kids aged four to seven, but then point out that children grow at different rates and that while children aged between seven and 16 are required to use “either” a booster seat or an adult seatbelt, you should “find out which is safest for your child”.

“An adult lap-sash seat belt is designed for people with a minimum height of 145 cm. The average child will reach this height between 10 to 12 years of age.

“Children who are not tall enough to use an adult seat belt can slump into their seat. The lap part of the seat belt is then too high on their stomach which causes more serious injuries in a crash.

“Therefore, it is recommended that your child continues using a booster seat until they have outgrown it. There are some booster seats available for children up to the age of 10 years.”

The VIC site is here.

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