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Air Bags and Car Seat Safety

air bags and car seat safety

Air bags are designed to provide extra protection to vehicle occupants during a crash. As a supplemental safety feature designed for adults, we have to consider the effects of air bags on car seat safety and children.

Frontal air bags have been required in all passenger cars since the late 1990s. (1997 for passenger cars and 1998 for SUVs, trucks and vans.) But as of June 2007, air bags had killed at least 180 children, several of which were infants in rear-facing seats. And some of those deaths were in relatively minor crashes.

air bags and car seat safety

How air bags work

In order to provide protection in a crash, air bags must deploy extremely rapidly, up to 200 mph or in less than 1/20th of a second. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), side-impact air bags inflate even more quickly since there is less space between the driver or passengers and the striking object.

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Airbags are made of flexible fabric envelope designed to rapidly deploy in certain types of impacts. In a moderate to severe crash,

  1. a signal is sent from the air bag system’s electronic unit to an inflator in the air bag module,
  2. an igniter starts a chemical reaction that
  3. produces a harmless gas which
  4. inflates the air bag
  5. air bag starts to deflate

Air bags inflate with a considerable amount of force which can injure a person who is too close to or thrown toward an air bag and is hit by it as it inflates. One could compare it as being more force than that of a heavyweight fighter’s knockout punch.

Air bags work best as supplemental protection with the seat belt. Together they allow crash forces to spread over a larger area of the body, allowing the occupant to further “ride down” the crash energy.

A little history

Amazingly, air bags actually date back to 1953 after John Hetrick experienced a car accident with his family where they ended up in a ditch. Though not hurt, Hetrick said he couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I asked myself, ‘Why couldn’t some object come out to stop you from striking the inside of the car?’,” he said in a 2010 interview with Invention and Technology.

But at the time they lacked the technology to have sensors to tell the air bag when to deploy. In 1968, Allen Breed started working on the problem. In the early 1970s car manufacturers started making passenger air bags an option. They were not popular and manufacturers thought them impractical.

Besides in 1966 Congress passed the law that required manufacturers to put seat belts in all vehicles. However, only 25% of people used the seat belts. Many believed air bags were the perfect solution since it is a passive safety feature. A passive safety feature is built in to the car and the occupant does not have to do anything to benefit from it’s effect. (Other examples of passive safety include crumple zones and collapsible steering columns.)

Later in the 1980s car manufacturers tried again, this time making air bags standard in some vehicles.

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Further advancements

Air bags have certainly changed over the years. Beginning aggressive and deploying the same way for every driver and passenger, the modern air bag interacts with occupants differently.

Newer advanced air bags inflate according information from sensors about the seriousness of the crash and the passenger’s size, sitting position and distance from the air bag. The air bag will deploy at a higher or lower force or perhaps not at all depending on what the sensors read. Consult your car’s owner’s manual for specifics about your advanced air bag.

As much as manufacturer’s are improving air bags, they are still designed for adults. They are tested on the 5th percentile female and 50th percentile male. So air bags present some concern for safe travel with children and car seat safety.

air bag locations

Air bags, air bags everywhere

Front air bags come out of the steering wheel for drivers and out of the dashboard for passengers. Front air bags have been in vehicles the longest and are required by law. However car manufacturers are adding other airbags to cars as well.

  • Side air bags fill the gap between the occupant and door or window.
  • Front center air bags deploy between the driver and passenger seats to protect those two from colliding in a side impact.
  • Knee air bags, found in some vehicles, come from low or under the dash.
  • Seat cushion air bags raise the front portion of the seat cushion to keep the occupant in the correct position during a frontal crash.

Car manufacturers label all frontal and most side air bags.

There are air bag warnings on the sun visor in seating positions where the air bag deploys from the dashboard. Warning labels for side air bags may be on the door frame, the end of the dashboard, on the side of the seat or the side of the door.

Air bags and children in the front

Front passenger seat warning labels remind parents to never put a rear-facing car seat in that seat. A rear-facing seat would be in the deployment zone of the passenger air bag and would experience the force of the air bag deploying. This can crush the child restraint and injure or kill a child.

In some cases a child has to sit in the front seat. For instance in a truck or sports car, there may not be back seat. Or if all the other rear seat belts are being used by other children, another child would have to sit in front. Do what you can to plan ahead to avoid these scenarios. When in this situation, you need to do what you can to keep that child safe. If possible, especially in vehicles which do not have a back seat, turn the air bag off when you have a child in the passenger seat.

If a forward-facing child must sit in the front passenger seat, properly restrain the child and move the vehicle seat back as far as possible away from the air bag. Some car seat manufacturer’s warn against placing a car seat or booster seat in front of an air bag.

Download our report: Common Car Seat Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Even if you have advanced air bags in your car, it’s best to err on the side of caution and assume the air bag will deploy.  Continue to follow best practice recommendations; no rear-facing seat in passenger seat and if a forward-facing child must sit there, push the seat as far back as possible.

Warning labels also remind parents to keep all children under the age of 13 in the back seat of the vehicle and away from frontal air bags.

Other air bags and car seat safety

After looking at more than 1,500 crashes, NHTSA reported a side air bag injuring only one child. (It was a 3-year-old sitting unrestrained in the front seat. And of course, you would have your child properly restrained in the back seat.)

As long as the car and child restraint manuals both allow, properly restrained children can sit near side air bags because the car seat will be outside the air bag’s deployment zone. If either manual does not allow it, you must choose another seating position for the child restraint.

Some cars now come with inflatable seat belt air bags. You will need to read your car seat manual to make sure it can be installed with a seat belt with an inflatable seat belt air bag if you are otherwise unable to use the LATCH system to install the car seat. The RideSafer manufacturer does allow using the vest with a seat belt with an inflatable air bag.

Reminder to older children and adults as well, do not lean on any air bag opening or put anything in front of the air bag compartment.

By Amie Durocher, Creative Director at Safe Ride 4 Kids and certified CPS Tech since 2004

Copyright 2021 Safe Ride 4 Kids. All rights reserved. You may not publish, broadcast, rewrite or redistribute this material without permission. You are welcome to link to Safe Ride 4 Kids or share on social media.

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