Air Bags

Since their development in the late 1980s, air bags have saved thousands of lives by protecting drivers and passengers during frontal crashes.

Front air bags are located in the steering wheel to protect the driver, and in the dashboard of most cars to protect passengers. Front air bags are not designed to protect vehicle occupants in side and rear impact or rollover collisions. Because air bags (and seat belts) were designed to protect average-sized adult males and NOT children, they can be extremely dangerous to infants or young children seated in front of them. According to research conducted by CHOP, children exposed to air bags during a crash are twice as likely to suffer a serious injury.

Air bags and children

Children younger than 13 years are safest when placed in the back seat of a vehicle, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). Other air bag safety rules to follow include:

  • Never place an infant in a rear-facing child safety seat in the front seat with an air bag. In a crash, the air bag comes out of the dashboard with its force directed at the back of the infant's head if riding in the front passenger seat.
  • The rear seat is the safest place in the car for children younger than 13 years. If you don’t have enough room in the back of your car to safely transport the number of children who need to travel safely, please visit a car seat check in your area where a trained expert will help evaluate your situation. You may need to arrange to use a safer vehicle with enough back seat positions to keep all the kids safe.
  • All passengers ages 13 and older need to wear a lap and shoulder belt when riding in the front seat. Air bags are designed to work with the lap and shoulder belt to protect the occupant in the event of a crash.
  • To keep your older child (age 13 and older) safe in the front seat:
    • Move the front seat as far back as possible from the dashboard
    • Teach your child not to lean forward to change the radio dial or to insert CDs
    • Insist that your child sit upright against the seatback, with the seat belt snug at all times

Find out what you need to know about air bags when buying a used car.

Side air bags

Side torso airbags, designed to protect the pelvis, abdomen and rib cage, usually come out of the seat between the seat occupant and the door. Side air bags designed to protect the head, also known as curtain airbags, come out of the roof above the windows.

While side air bags are more common in the front seats of a vehicle, some newer cars also have side air bags in the rear seats. Check your car owner’s manual and look for labels on the sides of the seats.

Side air bags can help prevent injuries to adults in side crashes, but may be dangerous to children who are not properly restrained or are leaning against the door. Although side air bags are smaller than front air bags and inflate with much less force, injury could occur if your child’s head is too close to the air bag.

The automotive industry has developed specific test protocols to minimize the risk of injury from side air bags to children seated next to them. Although this testing is voluntary, vehicles that complete it successfully receive a special designation in NHTSA’s Buying a Safer Car for Child Passengers brochure. Access this brochure, and see if your vehicle was tested for and meets side air bag standards.

Tips for protecting your child in vehicles with front- or rear-seat side air bags

Here are some suggestions to help protect your child if your car has front- or rear-seat side air bags:

  • All children should be properly restrained in child safety seats or seat belts based on their age, height and weight. Kids traveling in age-appropriate, correctly installed child safety seats will be at less risk of serious injuries.
  • Do not place your child next to an active side air bag unless the vehicle manufacturer says that it is safe.
  • Make sure your child does not lean against the area where the side air bag is stored.

On/off switches

The government requires that vehicles without a back seat, such as pickup trucks, have an air bag on/off switch. If a child must ride in this type of vehicle, be sure to turn the air bag off. It’s important to remember to turn the air bag on again when an adult or teenager rides as a passenger.

In addition, some consumers with special circumstances may need to have an air bag on/off switch installed in their cars. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has made some exceptions for these consumers. Learn more about NHTSA’s recommendations for deactivating air bags.

Find out what you need to know about air bags when buying used car.

How do air bags work?

The air bag system

The air bag system includes the air bag itself, a crash sensor, and a diagnostic unit that controls the system. In a head-on crash, the vehicle's front-end crushes, absorbing crash energy and creating a softer stop for restrained occupants. An unrestrained or loosely restrained person will continue to move forward at the same speed until hitting the car's interior. Properly restrained occupants come to a more gradual stop, along with the vehicle. Air bags also help drivers and passengers come to a more gradual stop, preventing contact with a vehicle’s interior and spreading crash forces more broadly across the body.

As the crash occurs, sensors send a signal to the air bag. A chemical reaction produces harmless nitrogen gas that fills the bag and pushes it out of its compartment. The whole process takes only about 1/20th of a second. (Half the time it takes you to blink!) The air bag then starts to deflate as the gas disappears, absorbing crash energy.

Frontal air bag improvements

Engineers have worked hard to improve air bags to increase safety. These improved versions, known as second generation or depowered air bags, are still not designed for children. Children are best protected in the rear seat. Having advanced air bags in your vehicle does not mean kids can ride in the front seat. Children younger than 13 years are best protected in the rear seat.

The newest type of "advanced" air bags further reduces the risk of an airbag-related injury or death for adults. When a front-end crash occurs, advanced air bags inflate according to the seriousness of the crash, passenger size, sitting position, and distance from the air bag. Sensors note these conditions and automatically deploy or release the air bag at a higher or lower force or perhaps not at all.

Learn more

For more information or for additional tips about air bag safety, visit the American Academy of Pediatrics website.