California Car Seat Laws in 2021
We have had it drilled into our heads just how important ‘buckling up’ is for protecting yourself and others in case of an accident. When it comes to our children, we would do anything to protect them, including following the latest research and guidance on the safest ways to secure them as passengers in your car.
From running errands to dropping off the kids at school, accidents can happen at a moment’s notice. In fact, the majority of car crashes happen within just one short mile of your home.
In this guide, we cover the latest methods to properly secure your child in a safety seat, and the California car seat laws you need to comply with in order to avoid costly penalties, tickets, and risk of injury (or worse).
California Car Seat Law: a comprehensive overview for 2021
California has one of the most comprehensive, robust and complicated sets of rules regarding driving and travel on its roadways. From California car insurance minimums, to complicated child car seat rules.
In California, car seat laws stipulate that all children as a passenger in a motor vehicle who are under the age of two, be secured in a ‘rear facing’ car seat situated in the backseat of the vehicle.
However, some exceptions can complicate things for concerned parents. Not only that, in addition to this ‘age rule’, some children may need to continue riding in a rear-facing car seat if they have not reached a certain weight or height threshold put in place by the state.
California Car Seat Rules By Age
Infants Up to 2 Years of Age
If your child is under two years of age, they must be safely secured in a backwards-facing car seat. However, there is an exception to this rule. If your child is two years of age or younger AND weights 40lbs or more, or is 40 or more inches tall, they are exempt from this requirement.
That doesn’t mean you don’t need a child seat. It simply means they do not need to be in a rear-facing car seat. In all cases, the car seat must be the proper size for your child and must meet any applicable federal safety standards.
Toddlers and Children Between 2-8 Years of Age
If your child is between the ages of 2-8, California requires that the child be secured in an age and size-appropriate car seat situated in the rear seat of the vehicle until that child reaches a height of 4’ 9” or taller. When the child reaches a height of 4’ 9” or more they may legally be upgraded to a ‘booster seat’ and seat belt combination.
Children Between the Ages of 8-16
They grow up so fast, don’t they! If your child is between the ages of eight and sixteen, you have more options. In all cases, you should use your best judgement as to the proper sized car seat, booster seat or standard (regular) seatbelt option for travel.
Children Over 16 Years of Age (and on through adulthood)
Any child age 16 or older must be secured by a standard safety belt subject to federal motor vehicle safety standards. In other words, your vehicle’s factory-installed seatbelt, used in an appropriate manner, from shoulder to waist.
Infant Car Seat Requirements Can Be Confusing
As a busy and cautious parent, you have enough to worry about without stressing over complex and nuanced state laws about car seats.
When all else fails, use the ‘40-40-4 rule’ to stay compliant and safe on California roadways.
All you need to remember is this:
- 40 or more inches tall
- 40 or more pounds on the scale
- Or 4+ years old
If your child is under any one of those (i.e. less than 40 lbs, less than 40” tall, or younger than 4 years of age), they need to remain in a rear-facing backseat car seat.
PRO TIP: There is no current exception allowed for any child who is less than 2-years of age no matter how tall or heavy they are.
When Can I Switch My Child to a Front-Facing Car Seat?
Making the switch from a rear-facing car seat to a front-facing one is something all parents look forward to. But you must be careful not to make the switch too early.
Once your child meets the aforementioned height or weight requirements, and is over two years old, they qualify for the switch.
Similar to a rear-facing seat, a front-facing car seat must still be placed on the back seat and should make use of a five-point harness.
Because the guidelines for each model are unique, always follow the requirements and setup provided by the manufacturer.
IMPORTANT: Never put a front-facing child seat in the front of the car. If deployed, airbags can cause serious injury or even death.
When to Make the Switch from a Front-Facing Car Seat to a Booster Seat
Seatbelts are designed to fit adults, not children. In the event of an accident, this improper fit can lead to serious injuries. But if your child has outgrown their front-facing car seat, what’s next?
Using a booster seat is the next logical progression. Typically designed for children between the ages of 4-8, these seats use belts and straps engineered to fit your child’s smaller frame and provide superior protection.
TIP: Generally, your child should continue using a booster seat until they reach 4’ 9” or more in height.
Riding in the Back Seat is Required by Law
In California, any child under two years of age is required to be secured in THE BACK seat of the vehicle. Under current law, no child under the age of eight is allowed to sit up front.
In any vehicle with airbags, it is illegal to strap in a rear-facing car seat in the front passenger seat. However, there are a few exceptions.
- The vehicle does not have a backseat (i.e. a coupe, truck or two-seater)
- The back is already occupied by children younger than the one in front
- Installation of a car seat in the rear is dangerous (i.e. broken seat belts)
- The back seats of the vehicle are rear-facing or side facing (i.e. jump seats)
- There is some sort of extenuating circumstance as to why the backseat cannot be used without risking the safety of the child
Stay Safe and Legal in 2021 and Beyond
We hope you enjoyed this guide and that the information within it helps to keep you and your family safe and legal when traveling on California roadways. Given that laws are always in a constant state of flux, always be sure to check yearly for any new updates such as new California Car Registration Fees.