Travel & Motor Vehicle Safety

Air Bag Safety

Main Points

  • Air bags save lives. Nearly all the people who have died from air bag-related injuries were either unrestrained or improperly restrained.
  • Emergency physicians see the tragic consequences of motor vehicle crashes every day.
  • People should always buckle their lap/shoulder safety belts. Air bags are designed to work with, not instead of, safety belts.
  • The risks that passenger seat air bags pose to children ages 12 and younger can be entirely eliminated when they ride properly restrained in the back seat.

Q.  Are air bags safe?
A.  When used properly, air bags save lives and put few people at risk. The vast majority of Americans can retain the benefits of air bags and eliminate risks by using air bags properly.

  • Air bags have helped reduce deaths and serious injuries in automobile crashes since their introduction in the late 1980s.  According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), frontal air bags saved 24,334 lives between 1990 and 2007.
  • As of October 2007, about 172 children have died as a result of serious fatal head or neck injuries caused by air bags, but most of the children were unrestrained or improperly restrained, which allowed them to move on top of, or extremely close to their air bags as they began to inflate (e.g., some had slipped the shoulder strap behind them).  
  • The concern about the risks that air bags may pose to children has helped focus the nation's attention on the urgent need to properly restrain children in motor vehicles. Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death in children, killing more children than all diseases combined. From 2002 - 2011, more than 9,000 children died in crashes, according to the CDC.

Q.  What is the proper use of air bags?
A.  Always buckle your lap/shoulder safety belt. Air bags are designed to work with — not instead of — safety belts.

  • Make sure that everyone in the front seat is properly buckled up and seated as far back from the air bags as is reasonably possible.  Unrestrained older children and adults sitting in the front seat can be seriously injured and even killed by a deploying air bag or by hitting the dashboard during a crash.
  • Children under age 12 should be restrained in the back seat. Children under age 1 and weighing 20 pounds or less should be placed in a rear-facing, properly installed, child safety seat. The seat must never be placed in front of a passenger air bag, because an infant's head is too close to the air bag when it deploys.
  • Drivers should sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel. This allows the air bag to provide maximum protection and minimizes friction from contact with the bag as it unfolds. Maintaining this distance may also minimize head and chest injuries in cars not equipped with air bags.
  • Drivers should position their hands at the 10 and 2 o’clock positions on the steering wheel to provide the greatest protection by allowing the air bag to deploy unobstructed.
  • Drivers should pay close attention to the driving environment, including traffic, road conditions, speed limit and other safety laws. No restraint system can protect against all injuries.

Q.  Should air bag on-off switches be installed in cars?
A.  Air bags have helped reduce deaths and serious injuries in automobile crashes since their introduction in the late 1980s.  

  • Air bags must come out fast to create the instant buffer that, with safety belts, protects people from serious injuries in a frontal collision. During pre-crash braking, unrestrained drivers and passengers may be thrown against the hub of the steering wheel or dashboard, where an air bag is housed. Individuals not wearing their lap and shoulder belts and/or who are riding less than 10 inches from where the air bag is housed can receive serious or even fatal injuries from deploying air bags.
  • The steering wheel itself is a primary cause of injury to drivers during a crash. To reduce risk of these injuries, sit back as far as possible from the steering wheel.
  • Families who may consider installing on-off switches so children can ride in the front seat should know that children are significantly safer riding in the back seat, with or without an air bag. According to NHTSA, children are up to 27 percent safer in the back seat.
  • If an on-off switch is installed, individuals must be diligent to turn it off when permitting a child to ride in the front seat and diligent to turn it on when an adult passenger is in the car.
  • According to NHTSA, people who may be eligible for using on-off switches are those who must transport infants riding in rear-facing infant seats in front passenger seats, people who must transport children ages 1 to 12 in front passenger seats, drivers who cannot keep 10 inches away from the steering wheel, and people whose doctors say they have medical conditions that warrant turning off their air bags.

For additional information on this topic, see ACEP's policy statement on Motor Vehicle Safety and fact sheets on Seat Belts and Protecting Children in Motor Vehicles.

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