Child restraint laws in Tennessee were enacted to protect children from injury and death during motor vehicle crashes. Statewide, automobile accidents are the primary cause of death for children aged 1 – 14. They are also the second most reason children in this age group are hospitalized or treated in an emergency room, and parents can be held liable, even if they are not the driver.
Tennessee child restraint laws apply to all children under the age of 15. The child restraint law that applies depends on the age and weight of the child. These laws are only minimum state requirements, though. The website of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made its own recommendations concerning child safety in motor vehicle crashes and should be consulted to maximize child safety while traveling.
Car seats are designed for children from birth to age three (3). Whether car seats should be rear or forward-facing is determined by the child’s weight and age. All car seats must meet federal safety standards.
Tennessee law states that all infants must face backwards in their car seats until they:
- are one (1) year old, OR
- weigh more than 20 pounds.
A rear-facing seat prevents decapitation of the infant during crash impact, as an approved, rear-facing car seat provides the greatest support for the infant’s head.
In cases where the infant outgrows a rear-facing seat before age 1, an all-in-one seat installed facing the rear or a convertible seat may be used. Cradled, rear-facing car seats are ideal, for as long as possible.
According to Tennessee child restraint laws, a child may ride facing forwards in their car seat, in the rear of a vehicle, where a rear seat exists, if they:
- are aged one (1) to three (3) AND
- weigh more than 20 pounds.
Forward-facing car seats are not cradled, but they are harnessed like rear-facing seats. Additionally, they include a tether to the seatbelt. Forward-facing seats are designed to limit a child’s body movements during a motor vehicle accident.
Some forward-facing car seats convert to booster seats as the child grows. These are called combination car seats.
Tennessee law mandates the use of booster seats to secure children who are:
- aged four (4) to eight (8) AND
- under 4’9” tall.
All booster seats must face forwards and be installed in a rear seat, where available, or according to the child restraint or motor vehicle safety instructions.
If a child is under 4’9” tall, but is older than age 8, they must still use a harness or tethering system that meets federal safety standards, such as a booster seat.
Children must be secured in a seat belt, in a rear seat, where available, when they are:
- aged nine (9) to twelve (12) and
- over 4’9” tall.
If a child younger than age 9 is greater than 4’9”, they must still use a booster seat-type belt system.
Ensure the seatbelt properly fits the child, with the lap belt fitted snugly over the thighs, rather than fitting the belt over the stomach. Additionally, the child should be large enough so that the shoulder belt does not cross the child’s face or neck.
Once a child reaches age 13 and is over 4’9” tall, they may safely ride in the front seat using a standard passenger seat belt.
Consequences for Violations
The driver of a motor vehicle may face charges and a $50 fine for each child who is improperly restrained in the vehicle. If the driver is not a legal guardian or parent, but the parent is in the car, the parent is responsible and may face a fine.
Special provisions are made for child restraint systems that are altered for medical reasons. Where this is the case, drivers should ensure that a doctor’s prescription for the modified child restraint system accompanies the child while they are traveling.
Children should stay in car seats and booster seats for as long as their ages and size allows, and younger children should always ride in a rear seat when available. All car seats and booster seats come with manufacturer’s instructions for proper installation, and drivers can be held liable for an improperly installed child restraint system in their vehicle. Child restraint laws in Tennessee were enacted to maximize children’s safety, and drivers are liable even if they are not the parent of the child in the vehicle. Likewise, parents are liable even if they are not the driver.