Air Bags - Frequently Asked Questions

Air Bags - Frequently Asked Questions

Airbags - A Danger To Children

Question: Why are air bags dangerous to children age 12 and under?

Answer: Air bags inflate at speeds up to 200 mph -- faster than the blink of an eye -- to protect adults in a front-end collision. That blast of energy can severely hurt or kill passengers and drivers who are too close to the air bag. An infant's head in a rear-facing safety seat is directly in front of the air bag as it breaks through the dashboard and instantly inflates. Even some forward facing child safety seats could possibly place the child within range of the air bag before it is fully inflated. Also, if a child is unbelted, or too small for the lap and shoulder belt to fit properly, or wriggling around or leaning forward, there is a danger that the child will be too close to the dashboard during that instant that the air bag begins to inflate.

Importance Of Safety Belts

Question: How can an air bag work so well for adults, but hurt children in the front passenger seat?

Answer: An average size adult who is correctly belted is not likely to come in contact with the air bag until it is fully inflated. A fully inflated air bag spreads the forces of the crash across a wide area of the body. Even an unbelted adult will probably come in contact with the air bag at the chest area after the bag has at least partially inflated. For greatest protection, both the driver and front passengers should be buckled up and the seats moved back as far as practical to allow ample space for the air bag to expand.

Unbelted or improperly belted children can easily slide off the seat during pre-crash braking, throwing them against the dashboard where the air bag can strike them on the head or neck with tremendous force before it is fully inflated.

The air bag only inflates in front end crashes and collapses immediately. For protection in all types of collisions -- multiple, rollover, rear end, side and front end -- it is very important to always use both lap and shoulder belts.

The Back Seat Is The Safest Seat

Question: Why are children safer in the back seat?

Answer: The rear seat is the safest seat for any passenger. Head-on crashes cause the greatest number of serious injuries. A person sitting in the back seat is farthest away from the impact and less likely to be injured. People sitting in the rear have the soft back of the front seat in front of them, instead of hard surfaces like the windshield, mirror or dashboard.

If it is absolutely necessary for a child age 12 or under to ride in the front seat of a car with a passenger side air bag, secure the child in a restraint system that is correct for the size of the child -- a front-facing child safety seat, a booster seat, or a lap/shoulder belt -- AND move the front seat as far back away from the dashboard as possible.

If the vehicle has no back seat, such as a pickup truck, an infant will be safe in a rear-facing child seat only if the vehicle does not have a passenger side air bag or if it has a cutoff switch for the passenger side air bag.

In summary, people riding in the front seat who are most likely to be injured or killed by an inflating air bag are:

  • Infants riding in rear-facing car seats;
  • children age 12 and under who are not properly secured in a restraint system that is appropriate for their size -- a forward facing safety seat, booster seat, or correct fitting lap and shoulder belt;
  • children or adults who are not buckled up;
  • children or adults who place the shoulder belt either behind their back or under their arm; and
  • persons sitting too close to the steering wheel or dashboard so that they come into contact with the air bag before it is fully inflated.

Being Smothered By an Air Bag is a Myth

Question: Is it true that a passenger can be smothered by an air bag?

Answer: No! The injuries that occur are caused by the inflating bag hitting the head and neck of an out-of-position passenger or the inflating bag hitting the back of an infant seat behind a baby's head. The air bag loses its air right after it inflates, so the stiff fabric does not remain over the passenger's face.

Turning an Infant Seat Around

Question: When parents learn that an air bag can harm a baby in a rear-facing infant seat, many of them want to place the baby facing forward. Is this okay?

Answer: No! Infants must always ride facing the rear in the back seat.

Both the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) warn that babies should ride facing the back until they are at least one year old and weigh at least 20 pounds. A child under age one does not have strong neck muscles; the head would snap forward in a crash if the baby were facing forward. This could cause serious neck and spinal cord injury.

When the child is facing the back, the force of the crash is spread across the whole body. The child seat harness must be snug, and the seat should be at a 45-degree angle to support the baby's head and maintain an open airway. Some safety seats have an indicator on the side to show the correct angle. A child seat that installs in a position that is too upright can be angled properly by using a firmly rolled sheet or towel under the foot of the seat.

Need to Be Able to See Baby While Driving

Question: Many parents don't want to put their infants in the back seat because they cannot see them. Shouldn't a parent keep an eye on the baby to make sure it is not choking or
experiencing some other health problem?

Answer: The risk of a serious injury in a crash is much greater than the risk of a healthy baby having a life-threatening problem during a car ride. A healthy baby correctly buckled in a rear-facing child seat should be as safe as a child placed in a crib for a nap or an overnight sleep. Parents do not stay in the room to watch a sleeping baby.

Drivers traveling with children should always allow plenty of time to pull off the road if they are concerned about the baby or need to tend to the child's needs.

Using Only the Lap Portion of a Lap/Shoulder Belt System

Question: If a child is too small to wear a shoulder belt correctly, will the lap belt protect the child from an air bag?

Answer: No. If a child uses only the lap portion of a safety belt, his or her upper body will be thrown forward when the driver brakes or during the crash itself. The inflating bag will strike the child's head and neck very hard.

Whether in the front seat or rear seat, children can suffer serious or fatal injuries if they wear a shoulder belt wrong, such as under the arm or behind the back. A child who is too short for the shoulder belt (for example, the belt cuts across the neck or face) should always use a convertible or toddler safety seat (if the child is under 40 pounds and 40 inches) or a belt-positioning booster seat (if the child is over 40 pounds and 40 inches). Remember that a belt-positioning booster seat must be used with both the lap and shoulder belts, preferably in the rear seat, which is always safer than the front seat.

Identifying Vehicles with Air Bags

Question: How can a driver or passenger tell whether a vehicle has an air bag?

Answer: Vehicles with air bags have one or more of the following markings:

  • the words "Air Bag" or the letters "SRS" (Supplemental Restraint System) or "SIR" (Supplemental Inflatable Restraint) on the steering wheel and dashboard panel.
  • a warning label on the sun visors or on the sides of the open door frame.
  • a warning in the vehicle owner's manual.

Consult the owner's manual to find information about carrying children safely in a vehicle equipped with an air bag.

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Do airbags deploy only when you hit the brakes?
This is what my Saab dealer said when I thought they should have gone off during a direct frontal crash.
They did not. He said I would have to have put on the brakes for the airbags to go off.
I find that hard to believe.
Is he correct?

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