Frontal airbags are credited with saving more than 25,000 lives since 1987, but they also come with potential injury risks. Learn how to practice good airbag safety, and you won’t have to worry. Refer to the owner’s manual to learn about the location and operation of all airbags in your vehicle.
Airbags are supplemental safety devices; they are no replacement for a seat belt. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warns that serious or even fatal air bag-related injuries can occur if occupants are not restrained. All occupants should be properly restrained with either a seat belt or a child safety restraint, whether or not a vehicle has airbags — and regardless of the type of airbag system in use, even if it’s advanced. Unrestrained or improperly restrained occupants will move forward during the hard braking before a frontal crash. In addition to striking the interior of the vehicle, unrestrained front seat occupants are likely to be on top of the airbag as it begins to inflate rather than in front of it where it should be.
If you have an airbag On-Off switch, check its position each time you enter your vehicle. One survey shows that nearly half of these On-Off switches — 48 percent — were incorrectly left on for child passengers under age 13. For vehicles equipped with frontal airbags, occupants should read the vehicle owner’s manual to become familiar with the passenger airbag indicator light.
For properly restrained occupants, most injuries that result from a deploying airbag are minor bruises or abrasions, which are far less serious than head trauma or other major injuries that airbags can prevent. In vehicles with frontal airbags, drivers and passengers should keep at least 10 inches between the airbag cover and the breastbone.
Children Under 13
Never place an infant in a rear-facing child safety seat in the front seat of a vehicle that has an active front passenger airbag.
All children under 13 are safest sitting properly restrained in a rear seat. They should use child safety seats, booster seats, or seat belts appropriate for their age and size.
There may be occasions when a parent or caregiver has no other option than to place a child in the right front seat, such as:
- In a pickup truck or sports car with insufficient rear seats, a side-facing seat, or no available rear seat.
- If a parent is transporting too many children for all to ride in the back.
- If a child with a medical condition requires monitoring and another adult is not available to accompany the driver.
If you can’t avoid putting a child under 13 in the front seat, be sure to take the following steps to reduce the risk of airbag-related injuries:
- Ensure the child is using the appropriate child restraint for his/her age and size.
- Make sure the child is sitting with his/her back against the seat back and not leaning forward into the deployment path of an airbag.
- Move the seat as far back as possible.
If the vehicle is equipped with advanced airbags (see the airbag warning label on the sun visor), check the passenger airbag status indicator light and verify that the passenger airbag is OFF.
If the vehicle is equipped with an airbag On-Off switch, set the switch to the Off position.
If you have a choice of which child to place in the front seat, select the child most likely to follow your instructions and stay properly seated. This may not be the oldest child. To minimize side airbag-related injuries to children:
- Ensure that children do not lean or rest against chest-only or head/chest combination side-impact airbags (SABs). Note: NHTSA has seen no indication that roof-mounted head SABs pose risks to children. Many roof-mounted SABs now extend rearward to include the second and even the third row of a vehicle.
- If your car has SABs, ensure they meet Technical Working Group (TWG) voluntary standards for side-impact airbags. Then refer to the SAB “Out Of Position Testing” entry under “Air Bags” on the NHTSA website. Standards for TWG compliance are also included in the NHTSA’s “Buying a Safer Car” brochures, which are published for each model year.
- If your vehicle doesn’t meet TWG standards, check your owner’s manual or contact the vehicle manufacturer for recommendations on where your child should be seated.
Pregnant women should follow the same airbag safety precautions as other adults: maintain a proper seating position, move the seat as far back as possible and use the seat belt properly — every trip, every time.
When buckling up, a pregnant woman should:
- Never place the lap belt above or on the belly.
- Adjust the lap belt across the hips/pelvis below the belly.
Women late in pregnancy may find it difficult to position their abdomens away from the steering wheel. If the vehicle has a tilted steering wheel, pregnant women should make sure the wheel is tilted toward the breastbone, not the abdomen or the head.
Elderly and Small-Stature Adults
Smaller adults and elderly people are generally safe in front of an airbag if they are properly belted, maintain a proper seating position, and move the seat as far back as possible.
Drivers who find it difficult to maintain the recommended 10-inch distance between the airbag cover in the center of the steering wheel and the breastbone should:
- Ensure they are properly belted.
- Maintain a proper seating position.
- Move the seat as far back as possible — while still comfortably reaching the pedals.
- Recline the back of the seat slightly.
Tilt the steering wheel if it is adjustable so the airbag points toward the breastbone instead of the head or neck. Ask the vehicle manufacturer about the availability of pedal extenders.
Those who still can’t get far enough away from the steering wheel should consider buying a new vehicle with adjustable pedals. Some advanced airbag systems automatically turn the front airbag off if they detect a passenger of very low weight.
People with Medical Conditions
Some passengers may have medical conditions that make it riskier to hit an airbag than the steering wheel, dashboard, or windshield. For such people, consider installing an airbag On-Off switch or airbag deactivation system for either the driver or front passenger airbag.
The NHTSA must approve any requests to deactivate a frontal air bag and will do so only if the manufacturer doesn’t make an On-Off switch for the vehicle. It will also only approve a frontal air bag On-Off switch or deactivation for certain medical conditions.
At NHTSA’s request, the Ronald Reagan Institute of Emergency Medicine recommends disconnecting an airbag if scoliosis or achondroplasia prevents the driver from keeping a safe sitting distance from the bag or if scoliosis, Down syndrome, or atlantoaxial instability prevents a passenger from doing so. The Reagan Institute also noted that a passenger airbag should be turned off if a medical condition requires that an infant or child ride in front so he or she can be monitored.