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Why Are Rear-Facing Car Seats Safer For Kids Under Two?

Megan Harris
90.5 WESA

Pennsylvania parents will soon have to keep their children in rear-facing car seats until they are 2 years old or until they outgrow the height and weight limits of the seats.

A bill on its way to Gov. Tom Wolf’s desk increases the age limit from 1 to 2 and aligns with recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics.

Rear-facing car seats are safer for small children whose still-developing necks are weak compared to their large, heavy heads, said Kevin Toosi, a biomechanical engineering consultant specializing in automobile accident reconstruction.

“If somebody’s involved in a frontal crash, the occupants in the car would move forward toward the point of impact, which would be the front end of the car,” he said.

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, in 2014 more than 50 percent of fatal car accidents were front-impact crashes.

If a vehicle is traveling at 50 miles per hour and suddenly strikes an obstacle, it will slow or stop, but inertia keeps the passengers moving forward at the 50-mile-per-hour speed. If a child is in a front-facing seat, his or her head and neck will pitch forward, which Toosi said could actually sever the spine.

“In a rear-facing seat, they’re being pushed to the cushions of the seat, which would absorb most of their energy and support the head and neck, which is the most important part,” he said.

Toosi said after 2 years old, the strength of the neck and the weight of the head become more proportional, making it less risky for children to be in front-facing seats.

But Mara McFadden, director of product development for Pittsburgh-based 4Moms, said she kept her oldest daughter in a rear-facing seat until she was 3 years old.

Credit AP

“We went actually to the height limit of our rear-facing car seat and since she’s quite tall, she recently reached that,” she said.

McFadden said there is an “urban legend” among parents that children should be rotated to front-facing once their feet or legs reach the seat of the car. She said parents cite the concern that their child’s legs or pelvis could be crushed by the impact of a rear-end collision.

However, Toosi said it is better to risk leg injuries than spinal cord injuries. Furthermore, a 2001 study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine found that high speed rear-end crashes are likely to be fatal regardless of the direction a car seat is facing because the entire back end of the car tends to be crushed due to the impact.

Chelsea Pompeani, public affairs director for AAA East Central, said anecdotal evidence from the organization’s car seat roundups suggests about half of parents seem to be aware that it is safer to keep children in rear-facing car seats until age two.

A spokesperson for Gov. Wolf indicated he will sign the bill but has not given a date. The new law will take effect 60 days after it's signed and parents will have a one year grace period where they will receive a verbal warning rather than a $75 fine.