Monday, June 7, 2010

The Center: Why Your Child Should be Riding There (and not on the side)

***For an easy-to-print version of this tip sheet, click here***

Center or Side?

The center of the back seat is the safest place in the entire vehicle. It's not just safest for kids - it's safest for adults too. Research from real crashes shows that kids sitting in the center are 43% safer than those sitting on the side because you can never take a direct hit in the center.

But there is no LATCH in the center of my vehicle?
    Talk about a mixed message! LATCH was designed specifically for child safety seats, yet the safest place for the child safety seat usually doesn't have LATCH. BUT just because there is no LATCH doesn't mean you can't install the child safety seat in the center - you will just need to use the vehicle's safety belt to secure the child safety seat in the center. (Just remember, there is almost always a tether anchor in the center - so if you are putting a forward-facing seat in the center, use the vehicle's safety belt AND the tether.)
But what if two (or more) people need to ride in the back seat?
    Since the center is the safest spot, try to put the person who is least protected in the center. For example, a rear-facing child (even a 4 pound preemie) is 5 times safer than a forward-facing child or adult simply because they are riding rear-facing. So, put the forward-facing child in the center and the rear-facing child on the side to "even things out."
But I don't have a shoulder belt in the center - it is just a lap belt
    With most child safety seats, it doesn't matter whether you use a shoulder/lap belt or just a lap belt to secure the seat to the vehicle. It also doesn't matter for the child's safety - as they are using the harness straps from the child safety seat (not the vehicle's seat belt) to hold them tight. The one big exception are booster seats - seats where the child sits on the booster and uses the vehicle's shoulder/lap belt across them. Kids in boosters need shoulder belts - and can not ride with just a lap belt. Adults too should ideally ride with a shoulder belt as the shoulder belt holds the upper body back - keeping the head and chest safe. Therefore, if you have just a lap belt in the center, the child in a booster and the adult would be safer on the side with a shoulder/lap belt.
But what if the child safety seat doesn't fit securely in the center?
    The most important thing is to use the child safety seat properly. So, if the safety seat doesn't fit securely in the center, install it on the side. Or, buy a different safety seat that will fit securely in the center.
But won't my child fly through the windshield if they sit in the center?
    As a parent there are many things to worry about, and many parents worry about this. But as the car seat lady and a pediatrician I am going to tell you not to worry! If the child safety seat is used properly, you don't have to worry about anyone going through the windshield. A properly used child safety seat is belted tight to the vehicle and the child is strapped tightly in the harness. The only people who go through the windshield are those who forgot to wear their safety belt or kids who were VERY loose in their harness straps.
But there is a fold-down arm rest in the center seat.
    No problem! For those who may have heard not to place a rear-facing seat in front of an arm rest, here is how the myth got started. A long time ago one child safety seat manufacturer (Evenflo) slipped this sentence into the instruction manual for all of their rear-facing safety seats: "When this restraint is used rear facing, DO NOT place it in a seating position with a fold-down armrest. During an impact, the movement of the armrest can cause serious injury or death to your infant." Evenflo was never able to provide even one real-world example where a baby was hurt in a crash because of an arm rest. None of the other child safety seat manufacturers ever thought that the arm rest was a problem. In fact, no one in the safety field is aware of even one injury to a rear-facing baby due to a fold-down arm rest. Eventually, Evenflo removed this statement from all of their seats and now allows any of their seats to be placed in front of a fold-down arm rest. Remember, the study that found that kids were 43% safer in the center was from real-world crashes, with real babies riding rear-facing in front of fold-down arm rests.


  1. Which child do you choose to be in the center when you have multiple children? The youngest?

  2. See above for the answer - "But what if two (or more) people need to ride in the back seat?"

  3. What if they are all rear-facing? Which position do you consider second safest and least safe? I've heard that you are more likely to be hit on the driver's side, so that position is the least safe. Do you find this to be true?

  4. Studies show that there is statistically no difference between the two sides - so pick whichever one is most convenient for you. If you have 2 car seats side by side, you will often notice that they only install securely in one combination (either center/driver or center/passenger) depending on the vehicle as the back seat of many vehicles is not evenly spaced out - and one side seat is slightly wider than the other side, making it possible to install 2 car seats side by side only if you use the larger of the 2 side seats. For example, in a vehicle where the back seat is a 60/40 split, you are not likely to get 2 car seats side by side on the 60 side - but rather to put one in the center (using up 30% of the back seat) and the other on the 40 side (using 40% of the back seat).

  5. Thanks! I actually have 2 Radians, so they fit side by side on the 60 side of the 60/40 split (center/passenger). We'll be in trouble if we have a third. While a 3rd Radian (or possibly some other car seat) will fit beside the first 2, my husband wouldn't be able to drive the car. He wouldn't be able to move his seat back far enough with a rear-facing seat behind him. Either I'd have to drive all the time (since I'm short) or we'd need a new vehicle ;)

  6. I am trying to figure out the safety of my 9 year old (80 pounds)....sitting in the middle back seat of my husband's car with JUST a lap belt - because that is ALL that is there...she is no longer in a booster....thanks - is it safe? legal? do we need a new car?

  7. Ib@Vif - with only a lap belt in the center i would recommend the child ride on the side to get the head protection provided by the shoulder belt.

  8. I have an older car with only a lap belt in the middle. I have 2 children on the sides in boosters and another one in the middle using an apex 65. She is almost out of it and I am looking for another option to keep her safe in the middle of the car. I am really hoping to keep the car I have and find something safe for her to use. I have looked at the kid y harness as well as the ez-on 86y but I'm not sure of their safety. Any ideas?

  9. Anonymous with the Apex - email me at and include the following info (make/model/year of the car, age/weight of the child in the center, make/model of the boosters, and ages/weights of the kids in the boosters) along with an evening phone number and I'll call you back to discuss some potential options. Best, Alisa "the car seat lady"