If you have kids there is no doubt you have been part of a debate over when a child can come out of a booster seat or sit in the front. I know I have been part of this debate several times and it seems like each time there is a new rule that all parents are supposed to follow. Some parents believe their child has to stay in a booster seat until they are 7, some believe its 8, some believe it's by weight and if their kid is over 70 pounds they can come out. Some believe it's a combination of age and weight and that if their kid is either under 8 years old or under 80 pounds they have to be in a booster seat. And then of course is the opinion of the kids themselves. They get tired of the child seat thing pretty quick. My eight year old daughter just started sitting up front without a child seat and she enjoys making me sit in the back. My five year old son swears that he is way too old for a booster seat and that he should be allowed to drive. That of course is a subject for another day.
Well, after one too many of these debates I decided to do what any good lawyer would do and I looked it up. North Carolina General Statute 20-137.1 holds the answer to this never ending mystery. In North Carolina, the driver is legally responsible for the proper restraint of any person in the vehicle under the age of 16. This means that if a child is not in a booster seat or if they qualify, a regular seat belt, then the driver can get a ticket.
The rule in North Carolina is that any child under the age of 8 AND less than 80 pounds must be in an appropriate child restraint seat. So, if little Johnny is 7 but weighs 85 pounds he can graduate to a regular seat belt. Or on the other hand, if little Susie is 8 and weighs 75 pounds, she can also lose the booster seat. Some believe that regardless how old the child is they must be in a booster seat if they aren't at least 80 pounds. Also, vice versa, some believe that if the child is under 8 years old, they must remain in a booster seat no matter how much the child weighs. Simply put, if the child is 8 or older or if they weigh 80 pounds or more, they do not have to be in a booster seat and can wear a regular seat belt. A child does not have to be both 8 or older and weigh 80 pounds or more. As long as they meet one of these (age or weight), then they can be taken out of a booster seat.
For the front or back seat part of the question, in North Carolina, if the front passenger seat has an active air bag system, the child must stay in the back seat if they are under 5 years old AND less than 40 pounds. As soon as they turn 5 or reach 40 pounds they can sit up front and if they are 8 or over or if they weigh 80 pounds or more, they can sit up front with just a regular seat belt.
Hopefully this clears up some of the confusion out there. However, it is very important to remember that the laws discussed above are just the minimum requirements. Each parent should also look at guidelines from various safety groups to help them determine if their child is ready to move to a regular seat belt or sit up front. For example, the statutes only deal with age and weight. They do not address height which is an important factor in assessing what type of seat a child should be in.
Failure to follow these rules can result in a traffic ticket for the driver. If convicted of a safety seat violation the driver may face a fine of $25.00 plus court costs. Also, two license points will be assessed; however, no insurance points will be given. Also, if a driver does receive one of these tickets, if they come to court with the child seat the child is using, then the ticket will be dismissed.
-Mark Herring is a partner in White & Allen’s Litigation Section and focuses mainly on State and Federal Criminal Defense
Nothing in this communication is intended as actual legal advice nor has any attorney-client relationship been created with any reader.