We’re sure you already know that kids shouldn’t ride up front, due to the presence of the air bag, and you’ve probably also heard that the center of the back seat is the safest for car seat installation. And it’s technically true: a correctly installed car seat in the center will protect your baby better than in any other position. However, as is always the case with car seats, the issue becomes more complex when you try to put a real seat into a real car.
Let’s start with the stats: yes, children are safer in the center, when all other factors are ideal. Kids seated in the center under age 3 have a 43% lower risk of injury than kids seated on either side, because they’re farther away from a side impact. This is crucial because while side impacts are only about 25% of all vehicle accidents, they’re far more dangerous for all passengers than front or rear end collisions. Most of car seats have at least some side impact protection features, and they definitely help, but there’s no industry standard to measure it. (I’m sorry, I know, this is horrifying to contemplate, but it’s important!)
However, there are a LOT of factors that might prevent you from seating your child in the center. Let’s start with the obvious: the average American family has 2 kids (or 2.4, to be more accurate), and there’s only one center seat. Someone is going to have to sit on the side, one way or another. (SafeRide4Kids says to put the youngest kid in the center, but what if you have twins? Or what if you have three kids? This is getting tricky!)
Second of all, not all cars have LATCH anchors in the center (although you can see a list of vehicles that do have center LATCH here. If you don’t have center LATCH, this makes things complicated for a number of reasons:
- On the one hand, most car seats can be installed quite safely with the seat belt in the center position.
- On the other hand, LATCH was created to make installing your car seat vastly easier, and a correctly installed car seat is a safer car seat! No, this does not mean that LATCH on the whole is “safer” and thus that you should absolutely, always use it instead of the safety belt; both are equally safe*. It just means that it’s easier.
- AND, some car seats and some car manufacturers let you “borrow” a LATCH anchor. Don’t ever, ever do this unless both your car seat’s manual and your vehicle’s manual say you can, though!
- AND, LATCH isn’t always easier: take for example the SUV mentioned by How Stuff Works in this article, which requires you to fold down the seats to access the anchors, which is actually impossible to do because the car seat needs to be sitting on the seat to install it! Also, LATCH weight limits were changed in 2014, making the whole business even more confusing, even for parents in the know.
And then there’s the shoulder belt: what if your center seat doesn’t have one? You can install infant car seats and convertible car seats with the lap belt, no problem, but once your child graduates to a booster seat, they absolutely need a shoulder belt. Most cars today have a center shoulder belt, but if you have an older car, it might not. If you’re like this very ingenious dad, you might be able to install your own, but we don’t recommend that kind of retrofitting for non-experts.
Long story short: there are so many factors to weigh, but the crucial piece of advice here is that the best place to put your child’s seat is where it can be installed perfectly. If you can’t do a safe, correct installation according to all of the manufacturer’s instructions in the center seat, then you’re better off choosing a side seat.
And no matter what else you do: get that installation checked by a professional! It’s worth it, for your child’s safety, for your peace of mind, and for ours.
If your head is spinning from all of the above info, you’re not alone! There are so many factors to contemplate when you’re purchasing a car seat, but we’re here to help – our car seat experts are trained to help you evaluate your needs to determine which seat is best for you. Access that expertise by visiting our stores, or just talk to our customer service team by phone or online, and we’ll make sure you get the answers you need!
*Don’t use LATCH and the safety belt at the same time unless your car seat manual explicitly tells you that this is ok.