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Babysitting: Driving Kids

If you have your license and a family asks you to take their kids somewhere, your first thought is probably about safety. Driving with young kids in the car can be different from the driving you're used to.

Top Things to Know About Driving Kids

There are the rules of the road and then there are the rules to follow when driving kids. The three most important ones are:

  1. Get a parent's permission first. Only drive your babysitting charges if a parent has asked you to — and only if you feel comfortable doing so.
  2. Follow child safety seat laws. It's the law in every U.S. state that a child has to be in the right safety seat. It's up to the parents to buy and install car seats. But it's up to you to follow the law — you'll face a big fine if you don't. If parents can't provide you with age-appropriate seats for their children, don't drive their kids. Tell the parents you're concerned about the children's safety and you'd prefer not to take the risk.
  3. Never talk on the phone or text while driving kids. Using the phone while driving is doubly dangerous when you have the added responsibility of driving kids. Plus, you need all your senses to be on the alert for all the talking, texting, and otherwise distracted drivers out there!

    Any time you drive, you face a big ticket if you break your state's mobile use laws. But even if your state doesn't have hands-free driving laws yet, make it a practice never to talk or text while driving kids.

Know How to Use Car Seats

Car seats are the law because they offer the best protection for kids. Some seats, like booster seats for older kids, are easy to use. Others, like infant seats, can be more complicated.

Ask parents how they want to handle the issue of safety seats. In some cases, as with infant seats, it's best to leave a seat in the car once it's been installed. That means it's often easiest to drive a family's car instead of your own.

If you'll be driving kids on a regular basis and need to install seats in your own vehicle, ask a parent to show you exactly how. Or find a child seat installation clinic at your local hospital or fire department.

No matter what type of safety seat you use, it should always be installed in the back seat. Front airbags can seriously injure young kids, which is why kids shouldn't ride in the front.

Figuring out which seats are appropriate for different age groups is complicated even for parents. So it's best to get a parent to show you which seat to use for which child and how to buckle the kid in. There are some basic rules to follow, though:

  • Babies should always ride in a seat that faces toward the back of the vehicle. These rear-facing seats protect a baby's fragile neck if there's a crash. The child's parents will tell you when it's OK for a kid to graduate to a forward-facing seat.
  • Kids must be buckled in right. Always fasten all the belts and clips. Make sure harness straps fit snugly (but not too tight) over a child's body. If you can pinch any harness webbing between your fingers, it's too loose. Puffy clothing can be a risk, too, because it prevents a harness from fitting properly. If it's cold outside, snap the child into the harness first, then tuck a blanket or coat around his or her body.
  • Kids need to ride in the correct seats until they are 13 years old. Until they're about 4' 9" tall (which can happen anywhere between the ages of 8 and 12), older kids will probably need to be in a booster seat, a type of seat that uses a car's regular seatbelt but "boosts" the kid up so the belt fits properly at the neck and hips. After that, they can wear an adult seatbelt, as long as it fits correctly.

Give Kids Their Own Rules

As the driver, you're in charge. Set rules for kids and stick to them. Here are a few you'll want to implement:

  • Don't share seatbelts. It may seem like fun, but two kids should never buckle up as a pair.
  • Kids in the back seat only. Kids up to age 13 should always ride in the back seat. This protects them from possible injury if a passenger-side air bag deploys. Explain that air bags are designed to protect adults with their larger bodies — and that what's good for a grownup could seriously hurt a child.
  • Play it cool. Kids should understand the importance of staying calm in the back seat. If they are jumping around or yelling, it can distract the driver. Even if kids are acting up, don't turn around to talk to them while you're driving. Pull over first — not only is it safer, but there's nothing like an unscheduled stop to get a kid's attention in a way that says, "I mean business!"
  • Buckle up at all times. Always praise kids when they take responsibility and buckle themselves in (check to be sure everything's properly fastened before you set off). Of course, it goes without saying that you'll need to set an example when around kids and buckle up yourself!
  • Don't take other kids in the car unless there are enough seatbelts. Even for a short ride, having someone ride without a seatbelt is a big risk.
  • Drivers rule! Kids are known for trying to talk a babysitter into letting them do stuff a parent would never allow, like riding in the front seat when they know they shouldn't. (Age 13 or older is the rule for front-seat riding.) Even if a parent bends the rules, it doesn't mean you should. If you're not comfortable with something a kid wants to do while you're driving, explain that drivers are in charge, different drivers have different rules, and when you drive, it's your rules!

Many parents today don't want teen babysitters to drive their kids around. And, after reading about what's involved in driving kids, that may sound like a big relief! Just as you need to get a parent's permission before you drive kids, you also get to make the call if you don't want to drive them.

Feel free to tell parents if you don't feel comfortable doing anything that's asked of you. Plenty of teen drivers aren't ready to drive friends and family, let alone take responsibility for someone else's kids!

Reviewed by: Elana Pearl Ben-Joseph, MD
Date reviewed: April 2011