The American Academy of Pediatrics's last car-seat recommendations dated from 2002. "There has been some evidence that's come out since the last recommendations were issued, that suggest that kids up to age 2 who stay rear-facing are at a significant lower risk of injury in a variety of crashes," Durbin said. "When you're facing the rear of the vehicle in a seat, the child is sort of cradled and supported by the structure of the seat," he said, "If they're forward-facing, their trunk and their shoulders might be well restrained by the harness straps, but their head and neck are often left free to sort of whip forward in the event of a crash."
Durbin added that many infant car seats, and so-called convertible seats, which can be used for both infants and toddlers, can now accommodate larger children in rear-facing positions. With some seats, children up to 35 pounds can face backwards.
The government agrees with the new push to keep children rear-facing as long as possible. "I think it really does reflect the, not only the state of the art, but also the science that that doctors have recognized as what's the best thing for the child," NHTSA Administrator David Strickland said.
For children older than 2, the AAP advises parents to keep children in a seat's five-point harness as long as possible, up to the height and weight limit of the seat, before switching to a booster seat for use with the car's seatbelt.
The guidelines for elementary school children have been changed as well. Previously, parents were advised to keep children in booster seats until about age 8. Booster seats do just that; boost a child up higher so that the car's seatbelt fits properly over the child.
Both the government and the AAP now say it's not age that matters but the size of the child. "The prior recommendations were really based on age, and it did not take into account that different children have different cycles of growth, and I think the recommendations recognize that," Strickland said.
The new recommendations stress that children should remain in booster seats until they reach 4-feet 9-inches tall, when the seatbelt should fit properly across their chest and lap. That could mean children could stay in their booster seat until age 12.
Zack Zindler, 9, of Bethesda, Md., didn't like that idea. "Bad," was his one-word reaction to the notion that he could still be sitting in a booster seat.