One of the most common car seat mistakes is turning the seat around too early. Some parents think their kids will be happier or more comfortable facing forward, but the truth is that kids are safer in rear-facing car seats. This is not a simple matter of parenting style or opinion, it’s a scientific fact. The data is strong enough that the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends keeping children rear-facing for as long as possible, at least until age 2. What is it about rear-facing car seats that makes them safer?

Car Crash Physics

child in rear facing car seatWhen you’re driving or riding in a car, you are an object in motion, subject to all of Newton’s Laws. These physical laws describe how objects behave when new forces act upon them.

For example, part of Newton’s first law states that an object moving at a constant velocity will remain at constant velocity unless acted upon by an external force. (Note that velocity refers to both speed and direction than an object is traveling.) In most basic terms, this means that you are in a car moving 60 miles per hour and it comes to a sudden stop, your body will continue moving 60 miles per hour unless something stops it. That something might be your seat belt, for example. This is why so many people are ejected from their cars in high speed crashes when they’re not wearing their seatbelts.

The seat belt stops your body from moving forward by exerting force on it as your body attempts to fly forward. If you’ve ever been in a car crash, you know your body feels that impact even when you’re wearing a seat belt. Even an abrupt stop can cause your body to lurch forward, leaving you with a bruised shoulder and a sore neck. This is because all the force required to stop your body is focused at the seat belt. The faster you’re going, the harder your body will move against that seatbelt.

Why Backwards is Better

Think about how an infant rides in a rear-facing car seat. The five-point harness secures them in the car seat, which cradles their body.  In the case of a crash at the front or side of the vehicle, the force of their body moving forward will be stopped evenly by the cradle of the car seat. If they were facing forward with only the harness as a restraint, their head would snap forward.

Babies’ and toddlers’ bodies cannot handle the force of this because their spines are still forming. The cartilage takes time to turn to bone as they grow. Before the age of two, there’s only a 50% chance this has happened in the neck, and the spine is not usually reinforced fully until about age six. Cartilage enclosing the spine might allow it to stretch about two inches. Unfortunately, it only takes about a quarter of an inch of stretching of the spinal cord to cause paralysis or death.

Thus, the harness in the car seat holds the child in the seat, but it is secondary to the protective power of the seat itself. Distributing crash impact evenly along the length of the body also reduces the chances of organ damage.

When to Switch to Forward Facing

As mentioned above, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends children remain in rear-facing car seats as long as possible. Many rear-facing car seats can accommodate children between 30-45 pounds. Even if their feet touch the back seat, it is perfectly safe for them to ride this way. It is also vitally important that you always follow the weight and recommendations from car manufacturers, since they reflect the limits of the car seat.

Correct installation is also critically important. Based on safety inspections, it’s estimated that 70% of car seats are not installed correctly. If you need help installing a car seat, contact the Maryland KISS (Kids in Safety Seats) program to locate car seat inspections available in your area. Other local help is also available through the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration website.