National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA photo / August 19, 2013)

In cars, the front-row bench seat has all but bitten the dust as bucket seats gain popularity. But the bench is alive and well in many pickup trucks.

Unlike sedans, most trucks still have the shifter on the steering column, making the bench seat an easy configuration to accommodate. Many front-row benches have a center position that primarily serves as storage with a center console. In a pinch, the console can be converted to a seat. While the bench seat is good for storage and adequate for comfort, is it a safe place for a passenger?

Russ Rader, senior vice president of communications with the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety, acknowledges that while this is a common seating configuration for pickup trucks, the IIHS does not recommend using the center position as a seat on a regular basis unless it has both a lap and a shoulder belt — they often only have a lap belt. "The front passenger airbag is not required by federal standard to protect a middle seat occupant," Rader said. When asked if the IIHS has any crash-test data on the front center seat, he said that the agency hasn't crash-tested a vehicle with a test dummy in the center position of any vehicle.

So what does that mean for child safety seats? Don't put them there. "Child safety seats shouldn't be used in the front seat — period," Rader said.

What this means is that perhaps a pickup truck's front bench seat isn't the best seating alternative to a minivan or three-row vehicle. If you're looking to purchase a truck with a usable front center seat in order to accommodate your family, be sure the seat has a lap and shoulder belt, and don't put kids there. Better to use that front center seat for your purse or briefcase, and start researching vehicles with three rows.

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