Air Bag Safety: Children in back!

Everyone Buckle Up! 

An infant or child riding in the front seat can be seriously injured or killed by the inflating air bag. 

An air bag is not a soft pillow.  To do its important job, an air bag comes out of the dashboard very fast, faster than the blink of an eye.  Many people’s lives have been saved by air bags, but the force of an air bag can hurt people who are close to it.  Drivers can prevent injuries to adults and children from air bags by following these safety steps.

Air Bag Safety Steps 

  • Infants in rear-facing child safety seats must never ride in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger air bag.
  • Children twelve and under should ride buckled up in the rear seat. The should use child safety seats, booster seats, or safety belts appropriate for their age and size.
  • Everyone should buckle up with both lap AND shoulder belts on every trip.  Driver and front passenger seats should be moved as far back from the dashboard as practical.
  • Infants under age one must face rearward and ride in the back seat.  Parents should feel just as comfortable as when they put their babies down for a nap and leave the room.
  • If a baby has health needs and requires special supervision, ask another adult to ride with the baby in the back seat and travel alone as little as possible until the health problem is resolved.
  • Check your vehicle owner’s manual and the instructions provided with your child safety seat for information on air bags and safety seat use.

Why have children died in vehicles with air bags? 

     In almost all cases in which an infant died, the baby was riding in a rear-facing safety seat in the front passenger seat.  The back of the safety seat was so close to the dashboard that the air bag hit the safety seat with tremendous force.  The force broke the back of the safety seat and caused a fatal brain injury.  Child safety seats are NOT designed to protect against this extreme impact.
In almost all cases in which a child over age one has died from impact by the air bag, he or she was “out of position” – either unbuckled or not wearing the shoulder portion of the safety belt.  The child slid or flexed forward during pre-crash braking, so the head and neck were close to the dashboard at the time the airbag was triggered.  Severe head or neck injuries occurred.
If a child is sitting against the seat back, fully restrained by a forward-facing child safety seat or a lap/shoulder belt AND the seat is pushed all the way back, the danger from the air bag is reduced.

What about sports cars and pickup trucks? 

If there is no rear seat and no air bag shut-off switch, a child is at high risk from an air bag. Some pickup trucks made since the 1996 models have switches to shut off the passenger air bag.  Other vehicles may have them in future years.  Turning off the switch is the best way to protect an infant riding in a rear-facing safety seat or an older child using a safety seat, booster, or safety belt.

What if you have no alternative except putting a child in front? 
If there is no room in back, a child over age one may have to ride in the front seat.  Here is how to reduce the

  • Make sure the child is correctly buckled up with the seat moved as far back as possible.  A toddler/preschooler should use a forward-facing child safety seat; an older child should use a belt- positioning booster or lap/shoulder belt.
  • Fasten the harness or lap/shoulder belt securely.
  • Make sure an older child does not slip out of the shoulder belt or lean toward the dashboard.

Vehicle owners and lessees can obtain an on/off switch for one or both of their air bags only if they can certify that they are, or a user of their vehicle is, in one of the four risk groups:  Infants in rear-facing safety seats, drivers or passengers with unusual medical or physical conditions, children ages 1 to 12, or drivers who cannot get back 10 inches from the air bag cover.  To be considered eligible for an on/off switch, a NHTSA request form must be filled out and returned to NHTSA.  Forms are available from state motor vehicle offices and may be available from automobile dealerships and repair facilities.  Forms can also be requested by contacting NHTSA’s Auto Safety Hotline at 1-888-DASH-2-DOT or visiting the web site at