Third Row: Friend or Foe?

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As families grow, so do the size of their vehicles.  From the zippy little two seater (we all wish!) to a more practical and professional four door sedan, to a larger SUV, the size of our vehicles often changes as our family grows. But once your family includes that fourth child, even a large SUV or sedan with two rows is not large enough for everyone to ride safely.

Now what? Many caregivers simply go out and buy a van or an SUV with three rows and consider their problems solved. Sadly, many families discover that they’ve simply swapped out one problem for another, often with a larger monthly payment.

So, what should you look for when shopping for a vehicle with three rows?  If you already have such a vehicle, how can you make it work best for your family?  We’ll explore some of the issues that the caregivers we work with often find frustrating and share some tips on how to work around them.

Physical Barriers — Width

The third row is much narrower than the second.

The third row is much narrower than the second.

The third row of many vehicles is not as wide as the second row. The wheel wells in the back, and often, the mechanisms for sliding second row doors push the third row inward toward the center of the vehicle. Sometimes even just providing storage and cupholders for the third row decreases the row’s width and makes installing car seats a challenge.

Three Across: Try Before you Buy

This third row is only two seats!

This third row only has two seats!

When families need to have three car seats, booster seats, or passengers across in the third row of their vehicle, we suggest trying the setup out before buying car seats. It may not be possible with the car seats they currently own. It may be possible with the exact right combination of car seats, and it might not be possible at all.

When shopping, please don’t peek into a vehicle’s second row, see how wide it is, and assume the third row has the same dimensions.  Because that’s almost never the case!

Folding Third Rows

In addition, the way the third row folds for storage in the trunk may affect how car seats fit. A car seat may tilt toward the fold, or the vehicle seat belt may be mounted in a way that makes it difficult to install that particular car seat in place properly with other car seats installed in the same row.

When shopping, consider the third row carefully and independently from the second row if the plan is to use the third row for children in car seats or booster seats.

Top Tethers

No tethers in the third row.

No tethers in the third row.

If you plan to install forward facing harnessed car seats in the third row, the top tether anchors can hide in all kinds of places!  They can also look strikingly similar to cargo hooks.

Look for those top tethers in the trunk area, on the back of the back seat, even on the back hatch or in the ceiling.  The vehicle’s manual will list the exact location.

A third row may include no top tether, or just one.  Some vehicles even have two or three top tethers in the third row!

Vehicles with five or more total seats are required to include three top tethers.  Some manufacturers find it easier to mount all three tethers in the second row, and none in the third.  They may install two tethers next to one another in the third row, so if you need to put two seats in the third row, you may need to go shopping for two car seats that fit next to each other. In these vehicles, the dream of putting one child on either side of the third row will, sadly, not be a reality.

Only one tether in the third row, and it's in the center.

Only one top tether anchor in the third row, and it’s in the center.

Some of the most popular vans on the road today have just one tether anchor in the third row, and it’s offset between the center and driver’s side.This top tether’s location confuses many caregivers, and it’s often misused. In addition, because the top tether is mounted in the middle of the vehicle seat, the forward facing harnessed car seat must be installed in that location. That’s not ideal for many families, since they’d rather install one child’s car seat on one side and a boostered or rear facing child on the other side.This setup is easier for spacing and “they’re looking at me!” issues between your young passengers.  Many SUVs have this layout as well.  With a single child in the third row it’s not an concern, but if you’re looking to put two or three children all the way in the back, configuring the third row can be tricky.

Front to Back Space

Small adult with not much front to back room in the third row.

Small adult with not much front to back room in the third row.

On that note, because it’s very common to have a forward facing harnessed car seat in the center of the third row, often we need to install a rear facing car seat on the side of the third row. 

While there is a third row, it’s usually not as roomy front to back as the second row.  In recent years it’s become more common for the second row to be able to slide forwards and backwards, making more leg room for the third row, but no amount of moving can change the total passenger space in the car.  When we are looking at front to back space, there are concerns about rear facing for room for the seat. Forward facing there are concerns (beyond the issues of tether locations) about fit, overhang, and room for a child’s legs. Trying to fit a car seat in the third row can be quite difficult whether the car seat is rear facing or forward facing, or even a booster seat for an older child. 

Vehicle Seat Belt Fit

The belt is hovering a full pen's length in front of the body.

The vehicle seat belt is hovering a full pen’s length in front of the body.

The belt is mounted very far forward of the seat, and very high, with no way to adjust it.

The belt is mounted very far forward of the seat, and very high, with no way to adjust it.

Because of where the D pillars (the pillar between the 3rd row and the back of the vehicle) are located for some vans, the seat belts are often mounted very far forward from the third row. This results in seat belts that hover in front of the child in the vehicle’s third row outboard seats. Even adults can’t escape the poor vehicle seat belt fit.

The vehicle’s seat belts are mounted too far forward, and often too low to fit adults properly.  Shopping tip: When shopping for a vehicle with a third row, climb into that third row  — just blame your children and inelegantly climb back there at the dealership — and buckle yourself in. Look at where the vehicle seat belt lays over your shoulder — does it touch the middle of your collarbone? The vehicle seat belt should actually touch your body at the right height. It should not touch the middle of your upper arm, nor should it hover in front of your body. A combination of the two is the double whammy of a truly horrible vehicle seat belt fit.

Learn more about seat belts, including ceiling-mounted seat belts in our article.

Enough Seat Belts?

Confirm that the third row has enough seat belts or lower anchors for all of the car seats or booster seats that need to be installed or used there. We’ve worked with caregivers who expected to put three car seats in their third row — only to discover that the row only had two seat belts!

Vehicle Seat Belt Fit and Booster Seats

Some high back boosters can counter this terrible seat belt fit, but not all can. Because of the seat belt geometry  — the route the vehicle seat belt takes from the car itself through a car seat or booster, or around an adult — the seat belt may not retract properly when a booster rider is using it. That means after a child has buckled in, the vehicle seat belt may stay loose. Or if they move at all, it never tightens back down. Imagine if every time you twisted your body in your seat belt the belt never tightened again. The vehicle seat belt wouldn’t provide a safe, tight fit. Challenging seat belt geometry plus the shape of many high back boosters that are built expecting a more traditionally mounted seat belt can make for some really difficult situations.

Head Restraints

No head restraint in the third row middle.

No head restraint in the third row middle.

While you’re seated in the third row, count the vehicle’s head restraints. You may be surprised to discover that there aren’t enough of them for all of the adults, teens, and backless booster riders who will be in your vehicle. While there may be three vehicle seat belts in that third row that may or may not fit properly, if there isn’t a head restraint, an adult, teen, or backless booster rider cannot safely ride in the third row.  If there is one fewer head restraint than seat belts, the end result is one fewer safe seating position than you thought.


It may seem like buying a vehicle with three rows will be the solution to all of your life’s woes, but simply buying one may provide you a different set of woes in return.  If your timeline allows it, take some time, do some research, ask some questions, and figure out the best vehicle for your needs.  See if your current car seats will fit in your new vehicle, or if you will need new seats, and take that into you account when planning your budget.  Planning for your family may require some creativity when it comes to car seat placement but it’s doable.