Why Rear-Facing is Safest
A common question asked by parents is, “How soon can I
turn my child to face forward?” It is recommended to keep your child rear-facing as long as
possible, at least until they are 2 years old and preferably up to maximum weight/height limits of their convertible carseat. The
American Academy of
Pediatrics and other Child Passenger
Safety organizations endorse this philosophy. The absolute minimum is to keep your child rear facing to AT
LEAST one year of age AND 20 pounds in weight.
- Rear-facing is safest for both adults and children, but especially for
babies, who would face a greater risk of spinal cord injury in a
front-facing carseat during a frontal crash.
- Rear-facing car seats spread frontal crash forces over the whole area
of a child’s back, head and neck; they also prevent the head from snapping
relative to the body in a frontal crash.
- Rear-facing carseats may not be quite as effective in a rear end
crash, but severe frontal and frontal offset crashes are far more
frequent and far more severe than severe rear end
- Rear-facing carseats are NOT a safety risk just because a
child’s legs are bent at the knees or because they can touch/kick the
- Rear-facing as long as possible is the recommendation of the American
Academy of Pediatricians, and can reduce injuries and deaths.
Motor vehicle crashes are the #1 overall cause of death for children
14 and under.
- CarseatBlog: Rear Facing Until 2 years Old, Why Not?
Even with best practice, not all injuries can be prevented. Some
crashes are unsurvivable.   Still, much of best practice is based on
statistics, and how to have the best chance to reduce injuries. Best
practice may also be based on crash forces and physics. Both are
very important regarding the use of rear facing seats.
A few factors govern the physics of crashes as they relate to
children in carseats. Obviously, the faster the vehicles are
going, the more energy will be in the crash. Similarly, heavier
vehicles will also have more energy. Perhaps most important is the
length of time passengers have to “ride-down” a crash. The longer
the “ride-down,” the more time your skeleton and organs have to absorb the
crash energy. Longer time means less power is transferred to your
body, and less chance of injury.
- Statistics. According to SaferCarGuide.com,
frontal and frontal offset crashes combine for about 72% of severe crashes. Side impacts are about 24%. Rear and
rear offset crashes only account for about 4%. The NHTSA FARS database shows similar numbers. The odds of being
in a frontal crash with a fatality or very serious injury are many times greater than being in a
severe rear-end crash. Rear-enders are more common at lower speeds, though most injuries in these crashes
are not as severe – typically, whiplash injuries to adults, especially passengers lacking proper head restraint.
- Crash Energy. Vehicle speed is very important to the
energy in a crash, even more important than vehicle weight. Frontal
and frontal offset crashes are the most severe because they often happen
with both vehicles traveling at high speeds in opposite
directions.Rear and rear offset crashes, on the other hand, often happen at lower
speeds. In many cases, one vehicle is stopped or nearly stopped,
and the other hits it from behind at a relatively low speed. Other
times both vehicles are traveling in the same direction at similar speeds
when one is bumped from behind. Either way, the difference in the
speed of the vehicles is usually much lower in rear end crashes, and
so the energy in the crash will also be much lower. Lower energy
means less chance of injury.
Ride-Down Time. Child passenger safety advocates often
stress the importance of “ride-down time.” This term simply refers
to the time it takes for a person to come to a complete stop in a
crash. This is important because the total force on the passenger
increases with both the weight of the person and with the speed they were
traveling before the crash. On the other hand, the total force on
the passenger decreases significantly as the time it takes to stop
increases. While we have often have no control of the speeds
involved in a crash, we can do some things to help increase the time it
takes for a passenger to come to a stop. As mentioned earlier, in a
frontal crash the vehicles are often traveling in opposite directions at
high speeds. When they crash, both vehicles stop very suddenly, in a
small fraction of a second. Even a slight increase in this stopping
time can reduce the risk of injury considerably. This is
perhaps the most fundamental concept in keeping passengers alive in a
crash.Take the case of a child in a carseat. Ideally, you want the child
coupled as tightly as possible to the harness system and carseat, and the
carseat coupled as tightly as possible to the vehicle with the seatbelt or
LATCH system. When you do this, the child gains all the benefit of
“ride-down time” provided by the crushing frame of the vehicle in a
crash. With a loose installation of any kind, the child gets less
ride-down time and suffers a more severe crash into the harness
system. The analogy is that a tight installation is like catching an
egg when you “give” backward with your hand to prevent it from
breaking. A loose installation will be more like holding your arm
and hand rigid when you catch the egg. The egg will splatter in your
hand if you don’t give, much like what happens to the internal organs of a
person when they are flung into a loose seatbelt or harness. By
giving with your arm, you cause the egg to slow down gradually, increasing
its ride-down time. Vehicle frames, advanced seatbelts and airbags
are all designed to help passengers slow down more gradually.
Carseats themselves are not designed provide much ride-down time; their
main functions are to prevent ejection and to allow the child to be
coupled tightly to the vehicle so the frame can provide the necessary
ride-down time.Fortunately, rear-end crashes allow for a lot more ride-down time than
frontal crashes. We already mentioned that the potential energy in a
rear-end crash is usually lower than a frontal crash because the speeds
involved are slower. In addition, the two vehicles are not usually
moving toward each other like they would be in a frontal crash. That
often means one vehicle is allowed to “give,” and the overall ride-down
times for both vehicles are much greater, meaning lower forces on the
- Forces and Area. We know that frontal and frontal offset crashes are
more frequent, more severe and usually have less ride-down time than
rear-end crashes. In such a frontal crash, it is easy to see why a
rear-facing carseat is a better choice. The entire shell of the
carseat cradles the child’s back, neck and head. Some seats even have foam
protection in the shell to cushion the child even more. The crash
forces are spread throughout the large area of the child’s back and head,
reducing the pressure during the crash, and keeping the head from snapping
backward with respect to the body. Unlike this rear-facing
carseat, a child’s legs and head are not restrained at all if they are
turned front-facing. In a serious frontal crash with a front-facing
carseat, the head and legs of the child are thrown forward like a rag
doll, and serious forces are put on the child’s spinal cord. In a
front-facing carseat, only the harness couples the energy to the child’s
body. The smaller area of the harness means more pressure on the
child. In the egg analogy, the egg is much less likely to break if
it is caught using the whole padded area of your hand rather than with
just a couple bony fingers.Similarly, for the uncommon rear-end crash, a front-facing carseat may be
safer than a rear-facing model. Still, rear-end crashes are much
less common and much less severe than frontal crashes, and it is for that
reason we choose to maximize the protection for a frontal crash
instead. In addition, rear-facing carseats can also provide an
added degree of safety in side-impacts. Rear-facing seats will
usually protect the head from being thrown outside the shell of the
carseat much better than a front-facing carseat in a frontal offset or
side impact. Even a minor rear-end crash can be serious for
front-facing adults without proper head restraints, but this is usually
not an issue for children in properly fitted carseats and
- Physiology. For the reasons listed, rear-facing not only
turns out to be safer for infants, but for people of all ages. In fact,
we would all be safer rear-facing in cars, airplanes, trains and
elsewhere. Of course, this would not be acceptable to most adults.
Fortunately, adults are somewhat better able to withstand the
forces on the head and neck in a severe crash when they are front-facing.
Babies have very immature bones and connective tissue, and this is
especially the case when they are younger than 1 year or under 20 pounds.
For that reason, front-facing babies face a particularly serious
risk of spinal cord injury in a frontal crash.
When used properly, rear-facing carseats provide significant
safety advantages in frontal, frontal offset and side impacts.
These types of crashes are far more frequent and severe than rear-end
crashes. For these reasons, rear-facing is the safest mode of travel,
especially for infants. In the USA, this recommendation is valid
through the 35 or 40 pound maximum rear-facing weight limit of most
convertible carseats, or until the child outgrows their convertible
carseat by height. The height limit of a rear-facing carseat may be
listed in the owner’s manual. A child is also considered too tall
for a rear-facing seat if the top of their head is within an inch of the top of the
carseat shell. It is NOT considered a safety issue if a child’s legs
are bent at the knees in a rear-facing carseat, or if their feet can touch
the vehicle’s seat back. At a very minimum, children should
remain rear-facing until AT LEAST one year of age AND 20 pounds in weight.
In countries like Sweden, children are often kept rear-facing much
longer, even to 3 or 4 years old. Auto related injury and death
rates for rear-facing children in Sweden are near zero because of
Convertible Models for Extended Rear-Facing:
|The following models all have above average height and/or weight limits
for rear-facing use. These may allow children to face the rear for
safety longer than many other models. Also listed are the
rear-facing weight limits according to the manufacturer. Most of these models are taller than average. The Cosco Scenera (not shown) is a great value option with a 40-pound weight limit from Walmart, but will be outgrown by height more quickly. Please
verify these yourself in case of errors. All
current convertibles can be used for extended rear-facing beyond 20 pounds, and
models not listed may have ratings similar to the examples here: Super Extended Rear-Facing Carseats: ERF to the MAX.
Rear Facing Height Limits
|Parents have heard many guidelines about the height limits for rear-facing child seats. Many are familiar with the
“1-inch” rule that says a child is too tall if the top of their head is within an inch of the top of the shell. Others
are familiar with guidelines that allow the top of the head to be even with the top of the shell, or even the top of the ears
being even with the top of the shell. Which is the right one? Depending on the situation, all these recommendations can
be correct. Some general guidelines:
- The most important rule is to follow any height limit given by the manufacturer of your child seat, usually listed in the
owner’s manual. These limits are to be followed above any general guidelines below.
- The “1-inch” rule is a general guideline to determine when to move a child from a rear-facing infant carrier to a rear-facing
convertible. It is NOT a conservative guideline to determine when to turn a child front-facing.
- An appropriate height guideline to determine when a child is too tall for a rear-facing convertible is when the top of their head
reaches the top of the shell. Make sure to measure to the top of the hard shell and not the fabric cover that may appear be taller.
If your seat has an adjustable head support (like the Britax Boulevard or the Cosco Alpha Omega/3-in-1), then the top of the head support
is the important level if it extends beyond the main shell.
- Some manufacturers state other limits. For example, some older Britax convertibles may list a rear-facing limit that allows the top of the child’s
ears to be at the top of the shell. Such limits are acceptable only for those models listed by the manufacturer or in the owner’s manual.
- If a manufacturer’s limit seems to conflict with one of these general guidelines, please contact the manufacturer for instructions.
|The great safety benefits of rear-facing are well established. Many advocates and industry experts realize that extended rear-facing height limits
carry much lower risk than the serious spinal cord and head injuries related to children in front-facing child seats. Even so, some parents and
advocates rightly point out that the risks of whiplash and impact to the top of the child’s head may increase somewhat as the head approaches or exceeds the
top of the shell. This risk can be compounded when children are nearing the rear-facing weight limit, as this could cause the seat to rotate downward
excessively. These risks can be minimized with a few common sense precautions to allow your child to retain the great safety advantages
of rear-facing for even longer:
- Make sure your harness straps are snug on the child every trip.
- Make sure you are using harness slots at or below the child’s shoulders.
- Make sure the chest clip is positioned correctly at the child’s armpits and holding the straps across the center of the shoulders.
- Since the child this tall is likely to have very good neck strength for head support, adjust the angle of your carseat to be more upright, perhaps as little as 30 degrees from vertical.
- Make sure you have no aftermarket accessories that put padding under the harness straps. This includes head supports and comfort pads.
- If you have a Britax, Combi or Diono convertible, use the rear-facing tether if at all possible.
Combined, these steps can help keep the child from ramping too far beyond the limits of the shell. As with any situation where you are approaching a limit for your child
seat, it is especially important to avoid misuse. Some convertibles, like those listed in the box above, may have increased limits to allow taller children to remain rear-facing longer.
Finally, inspecting your child seat before every trip and having it periodically checked by a certified technician are will help ensure that your child is as safe as possible.
Unfortunately, some carseat advocates and even some pediatricians are not
fully aware of the important safety benefits that rear-facing carseats
provide. Some still adhere to obsolete recommendations from many
years ago. In fact, the latest policy statement from the American Academy
of Pediatrics (April 2011) states, “All infants and toddlers should ride in a rear-facing car safety seat (CSS) until they are 2 years of age or until they reach the highest weight or height
allowed by the manufacturer of their CSS.” Links on this issue to other websites and organizations can be found below.
Have More Questions?
The links above will answer many questions. We also have a more
complete links page, a
Questions (FAQ) page with references to more sources of
information and a Guide to Carseat
Selection and Use. Finally, we would be very happy to try to
answer any questions or problems you may have regarding specific seats or
vehicles. Please post them at our FORUMS.