What is the safest, a rear- or forward-facing car seat?
Updated: Feb 14, 2021
If you are about to become a parent or if you know of someone with young children, you have probably heard of the rear-facing vs forward-facing car seat topic. All too often there is still confusion about what is the safest position for your child’s car seat.
So, to take away all the confusion, here is what is best for your youngest family members when traveling in a car:
Since most accidents happen in the driving direction, the highest impact forces come from the front of the car. Therefore it is much safer to transport infants and young children in a rear-facing infant- or car seat as this offers the best possible protection in case of a crash.
We understand that this seems a bit counterintuitive since every other passenger is sitting in a forward facing position. You probably wonder if your child won’t get car sick, how you are going to keep an eye on them while traveling or for how long your child should be seated like this.
In this article we will cover all of the most common questions about rear-facing vs forward-facing car seats.
Rear- vs forward-facing car seats, all you need to know.
It seems like a minor thing to place your child in a rear-facing car seat instead of a forward-facing car seat. However, since the invention of car seats for children, a lot has changed and a lot of insights have been gathered.
Based on all those insights and research results, rear-facing car seats were introduced in 1964 by Professor Bertil Aldman to reduce the amount of severe injuries in case of a crash.
Let’s have a look at the reasons why rear-facing car seats are now the golden standard to safely transport infants and young children by car.
How much safer is a rear- vs a forward facing car seat?
If you are not yet convinced to place your child in a rear-facing car seat, then it is a good time to have a look at some numbers from scientific studies that show how big of a difference it makes in terms of the overall risks to serious injuries when comparing rear-facing car seats to their forward-facing counterparts.
To determine what gives the best outcome, researchers make use of a sled test. Basically this is a rail system with a strong metal sled, that represents the car, mounted on top. The sled can roll over the rail system like a train and is electrically powered so researchers can determine the speed of impact accurately.
Mounted on this sled, there is an adult car seat and on this car seat they install the child car seats to mimic the real life situation. This way they can check how the car seats behave in relation to each other during the crash.
In order to understand the impact on a human being, they make use of the famous crash test dummies. These dummies are made to proportionally fit the age group they represent, in this case children aged 1-3 years old, and are equipped with all sorts of sensors that measure the results of the impact.
High speed cameras on all sides register the complete movement of the dummies so this can also be analyzed to see how much the different parts of the dummy move when the sled comes to an abrupt halt. Overall, this is what the researchers at the crash test center found:
During frontal sled tests with crash test dummies representing children from 1-3 years old, it is found that rear-facing car seats outperform forward-facing car seats by reducing the injury measures at the neck, the pelvis and the head with an average of 53%.1
In two other interesting studies, a comparison has been made between the effectiveness of using forward-facing and rear-facing restraint systems in relation to not being restrained at all during a crash.
Here the researchers found that for children aged 1-4 years old, there is a 71% reduced risk of significant injuries when seated in a forward-facing car seat and a 90% reduced risk when seated in a rear-facing car seat compared to not being restrained at all. 2
Basically this proves that being properly restrained in a car seat is the best and safest choice to protect your child during car travel and that a rear-facing car seat clearly is the better choice for children up to 4 years old or until they surpass the weight or height limitations of the car seat as indicated by the manufacturer.
That said, in most other countries than Sweden, the recommendation is to keep children restrained in a rear-facing car seat only up to the age of 2 or until the weight and size limitations of the car seat have been reached. In case you would like to keep them in a rear-facing car seat longer, then you can always choose a convertible car seat as they have much higher weight and size limits for a rear-facing position.
Why is a rear-facing car seat safer?
It’s safer because the most frequent crash impact direction is frontal, followed by sideway impacts.3 During such impacts the rear-facing seat better distributes the crash forces over the entire body and prevents sudden movement of the torso and the head, minimizing the risk for neck or head trauma.
As said before, Swedish professor Bertil Aldman first proposed rear-facing car seats in 1963. This idea came from looking at the US space program where he saw that the position of the astronauts in a space capsule was also rear-facing in relation to the sheer forces during lift-off and landings.
So, it is safe to say that the rear-face car seat advantage applies to all human beings, even adults. However, for young children this is even more prevalent since the body composition is vastly different from a full grown adult.
For starters, the head of a child is proportionally much larger than the head of an adult. For children the head counts for about 25% of the total body weight whereas for an adult this is only 6% of the full body weight.
The reason why this matters so much is because everything that should keep the head in its position is underdeveloped with children. This means that the neck, the traps, the torso and the back have much more difficulty keeping that relatively heavy head in place in case of a sudden deceleration.
Also, all the tissues and bones are still under development, making a child extra vulnerable during impact. The bones of the skull aren’t nearly as strong as with an adult and the neck and spine will only start to fuse together around the age of 2-3 years old. This means that the spinal cord is extra sensitive to being stretched too far and we all know what the outcome is.
The older the child gets, the stronger the body becomes and the better it can deal with the forces of a crash. Therefore it is best to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat for as long as possible, something they clearly understood in Sweden.
In the below video you can see the vast difference in movement of the crash test dummy during an impact. It’s safe to say that every parent rather has their child sit in the rear-facing car seat than in the forward-facing car seat.
Is a rear-facing car seat safe in a rear-impact collision?
We’ve talked a lot about the advantages of the rear-facing car seat during a frontal crash and even though this is by far the most common type of accident, we can’t deny the fact that rear-impact collisions happen as well from time to time, actually they account for about 25% of all accidents.
So, what does this mean in terms of the overall performance for a rear-facing car seat when you get rear-ended? Does it still offer enough protection or does it only perform well in a frontal impact? This is what science says:
Rear-facing car seats are safe in a rear-impact collision because the bottom of the car seat interacts with the vehicle's seat on which it is installed, this absorbs a lot of the impact forces. During the impact, the car seat stays with the child to support and protect the child's spine and head.4
During a frontal impact, all car passengers are being propelled forward because of the sudden deceleration of the car. One might expect that due to the same kind of physics the same would happen during a rear-impact but studies have found that the car seat and the crash test dummy stay together very well.
This ensures that the child will always stay protected in the shell of the car seat as the head, neck and the spine stay well aligned.
Is a rear-facing car seat safe in a side-impact collision?
Rear-facing and forward-facing car seats have a similar performance when exposed to an impact that happens 100% from the side. That is, if they have the same side wings and if they are attached in a similar way to the car.
However, most of the side impacts happen when the car is driving forward as well. This means that there is a bit of a forward motion into the crash and this is where the outcome for both types of car seats changes.
Rear-facing car seats are safe and they have an advantage over forward-facing car seats during a side-impact because the forward component of the crash forces the head to stay in between the side wings of the car seat whereas in a forward-facing car seat the head is moved away from the side wings.
For side wings to have any benefit at all, it is crucial that the child’s head stays safely in between both the wings. Once the head is propelled forward as happens with a frontal crash, the head is no longer protected at any side.
The main issue with a car crash is that it rarely is a frontal, side or rear impact only. The vehicle usually hits multiple obstacles before coming to a complete halt.6 So, if there would be a frontal crash followed by a lateral impact, chances are high that the head of the child is no longer protected by the wings of the car seat.
What angle should a rear-facing car seat be?
Many parents associate the rear-facing car seat with infant only car seats, however, it is not the type of rear-facing car seat that determines if you need to place it under an angle but rather the age of the child.
So, this could be for infant-only car seats, convertible car seats as well as all-in-one car seats. Whatever the car seat of your choice is, this is the golden rule:
For newborns and infants who are riding in a rear-facing car seat, the ideal angle is between 30 to 45 degrees from vertical. In this position the child’s head will stay back and the airways open. Reclining the car seat more than 45 degrees will lessen the functionality of the car seat during a crash.
Having the right angle for your child’s rear-facing car seat is extremely important because doing it wrong has a great effect on either your child’s ability to breathe or either the functioning of the car seat when it’s most needed.
Children this young have an underdeveloped neck and a relatively large head. This means they cannot hold their head up themselves and when they are not positioned in the right angle, the head will fall forward with the chin placed on the chest. You can compare it with an adult that wants to sleep while sitting upright. It’s not comfortable and there is heavy breathing.
If the head is positioned forward like this, the child might have difficulties breathing because the windpipe gets pinched a bit. This is also a poor position for the vertebrae to be in and in case of an impact, the head doesn’t have enough initial support.
On the other hand, if the car seat is at a greater angle than 45 degrees, there wouldn’t be enough support at the child’s head and torso during an impact, decreasing the effectiveness of the car seat. To ensure you have the right angle, always check the car seat guidelines as provided by the manufacturer.
Nowadays, most rear-facing car seats have a recline adjustment knob that allows you to place the car seat under an angle. For some car seats there are different settings that come with different age groups so that as your child grows and gets more neck controle, you can decrease the angle and have your child sit up a bit straighter.
For some car seats it is allowed to use rolled up towels or rigid foam cylinders underneath the car seat base to achieve the right angle. This is because for each car, the backseat on which you install a car seat, has a different slope and softness to it. Therefore the angle might be different from car to car and this allows you to correct it.
Make sure not to place blankets or towels underneath your child’s back or head to achieve the angle or a good fit. This should be correct from the moment you purchase the car seat so the level of protection is always at its best.
What is the best position for a rear-facing car seat?
Car seats are a great invention to keep your child safe during travel, but it is important that they are used correctly to ensure the best possible results in terms of safety. This also means installing them in the correct position in the car, which is as follows:
The safest position for any car seat is central on the vehicle's back seat. This position is furthest away from any impact and reduces the chance of injury up to 43% compared to a position on either side of the back seat.6 When the front seat is the only choice, the airbag has to be turned off.
We understand that it’s nice to have your child sit right next to you on the passenger seat when you are on the road. Unfortunately this is not the smartest thing to do as it brings your child closer to potential impact zones, both frontal and sideways.
The very best option you have is to use the center of the back seat as this is also the center of the car, leaving enough air between your child and the impact zones. Remember, front and side impacts are the most common ones.
If the center of the back seat is not an option, then your next choice would be the left or right side of the back seat. Unlike the airbag in the front seat, you don’t have to worry about the “curtain airbags” in the back because they inflate in a downward manner and actually help to protect your child.7
That is, if your child is properly restrained in its car seat and not leaning against the side window. Car seats with side wings will help your child to maintain a correct position when they fall asleep in the car.
If for some reason the back seat is not an option either, your last choice is the front seat of the car. As you probably have seen on the stickers in your car and on the car seat, the airbag should always be turned off when you place your child in the front seat.
Because your child has to be placed in a rear-facing manner, the head will be very close to the vehicle’s dashboard. If there is an accident and the airbag deploys at roughly 150+ mph, the airbag will do more harm than good.
Does a rear-facing car seat cause car sickness?
This is a very common question for people who hear about rear-facing car seats the first time. Usually we tend to compare this with ourselves and how we get along in a car or train when facing backwards, for many of us this doesn’t end so well.
However, is this the same for children as it is for adults and is it really the rear-facing position that causes this? This is what science says:
Although more common when traveling rear-facing 8, it can also happen in forward-facing car seats. The cause is not the car seat but the mixed signals the brain receives from the eyes and the balance system. Motion sickness should never be a reason to position your child forward-facing too soon.
Studies done with adults have shown that indeed the driving direction has an influence on the chances of getting motion sick. For adults, this number increases by seven-fold when seated in a rear-facing orientation in a car.
Luckily this is different for children as children usually behave differently in a car, especially the very young ones that need to be seated rear-facing for all the safety reasons as explained above.
Children this young usually fall asleep when they are laying semi-reclined in a driving car. This has the advantage that the eyes aren’t registering anything and the brain will only receive messages from the inner ear, which regulates the balance. Usually they will peacefully sleep until you’ve reached your destination.
That said, it is still possible that motion sickness does occur but as a parent there are a couple of things you can do to decrease the chances your child gets sick. The following tips are really handy for parents who like to keep their children in a much safer rear-facing car seat longer than the age of two:
Not having enough fresh air can be one of the triggers to become unwell when seated in a car. Keep your car tidy and clean, avoid strong smells like food or perfume air fresheners and regularly open the window a little bit to allow for some fresh air to get in the car. This can do miracles for every passenger!
When a child is too hot, the body will react faster to the effects of the mixed brain signals and motion sickness can kick-in a lot faster. Maintaining an overall cool temperature will make your child feel a lot better. This means less heating but also just one layer of clothing in the car and protection from direct sunlight.
This is kind of a no brainer. Your driving style determines how strong the signal coming in from the middle ear will be. If you drive like you are in a hurry, with fast acceleration and strong braking, the signals the brain receives will be much stronger and so will be the effect it has on your child’s car sickness. Besides, it is much safer to drive slowly anyway!
A filled stomach
There are few activities that work well on a full stomach, being driven around in a car is no exception to that. If you are planning to go on a long trip, allow your child to digest its food for a little while before starting your journey.
If your child is not busy registering the world around it, chances are very high you will reach your destination without vomit in your car. Staying away from the tablet or smartphone or covering up the side windows with sun shades can help your sprout to stay calm and fall asleep.
If your child suffers from being car sick very often, it is best to contact your pediatrician to see what other options you might have.
That said, it’s never a good idea to switch from a rear-facing to a forward-facing orientation when your child is still too young, even if your child gets motion sick. The benefits your child might have with regards to motion sickness do not outweigh the risks of serious injury in case of a crash.
How long should my child be in a rear-facing car seat?
Now that you know what is the safest choice when choosing between a rear-facing and forward-facing car seat, it is time to have a look at the recommendations as to how long your children should be riding rear-facing, because the right timing has a big influence on the safety statistics. This is what’s currently recommended:
The NHTSA9 and the American Association of Pediatrics10 recommend keeping children in rear-facing car seats as long as possible. This means until the child has reached the height or the weight limitations of the car seat. For convertible car seats this can be up to the age of 3 to 5 years old.
In the past, the general recommendation in the USA was to keep your child in a rear-facing car seat, at least until the age of two or until the weight and height limitations of the car seat have been reached.
Based on insights from national data as well as the experience in Sweden, where 4 years has been the golden standard for many years, the recommendation has been adapted accordingly.
Because of this change,more and more car seat manufacturers are building their rear-facing car seats to accommodate children up to the weight of 35 to 40lb or 15 to 18kg. This allows you to make longer use of the safest possible solution for car travel with children.
Bear in mind though that keeping your child in a car seat for as long as possible does not mean you should exceed the limits of a car seat. Once your child has outgrown the seat, its effectiveness in an accident will decrease drastically and it is time to move to the next stage.
If you like this article and you know of someone who might find this useful, please share it and help us spread the love! Thanks for reading!!!
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