Air Bag Safety

Air bags reduce the risk of injury for properly belted adult passengers. Air bags are designed primarily for front impact crashes. Air bags are designed to supplement lap and shoulder belts to limit head and chest injuries. Air bags are not designed to replace seat belts. It is very important to wear the seatbelt when sitting in a seat equipped with an air bag.

Beginning in the 1998 model year, all new passenger cars sold in the United States must have driver- and passenger-side air bags. Light trucks will follow suit in 1999. However, prior to 1998 many vehicles were equipped with air bags.

Benefits of Air Bags

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), a part of the U. S. Department of Transportation, reports that air bags have saved over 1700 lives since 1985. The risk of fatal injury to drivers from a collision has already been reduced by 11%, and hospital injury claims reduced by 24%. The NHTSA expects the benefits only to increase as more and more vehicles on the road are equipped with air bags. Air bags are very effective supplemental safety devices, and they are accomplishing their goal of saving lives.

How Do Air Bags Work?

Electronic sensors detect sudden, sharp decelerations (such as a crash) and detonate a small charge which inflates the bag. Air bags deploy at speeds upwards of 200 miles per hour - faster than your eye can blink. While slow-motion photographs may make an air bag appear as a soft, billowy pillow, a person who contacts an air bag before it is fully inflated may be seriously injured or killed. Once fully inflated, an air bag helps the seat belts to safely slow down the driver or passenger without injury.

Air Bags and Children

You absolutely must buckle any child 12 years and under in the back seat if you have a passenger-side air bag. Young children face a greater risk of injury if they contact an inflating air bag. Passenger-side air bags could severely injure or possibly kill your child. Additionally, buckling your child in the back seat is the best way to protect him or her from injury in any kind of traffic accident, even if you don't have an air bag.

Smart Air Bags

All of the auto manufacturers are actively working on "smart" air bags; that is, air bags that can sense the presence of a child seat or small adult. Some manufacturers are working on special child seats and vehicle seats that disable the air bag. But the reality for most cars on the road today is that smart air bag technology is still several years away.

Interim Solutions

Until smart air bag technology is available for everyone, the NHTSA has proposed that vehicle owners be allowed to turn off their air bag under some circumstances. Another proposal the NHTSA has offered is for consumers to be allowed to install an air bag cutoff switch in their car. Some light trucks already have an air bag cutoff switch.

Still, if you transport children 12 years of age and younger, the safest place for them is in the back seat buckled securely. Additionally, the driver and front seat passenger should push their seats back as far as possible to minimize their risk of injury. And never rest anything on top of the air bag cover. If you have questions about your vehicle's air bag system, you will find the auto manufacturer's toll-free phone number in your vehicle owner's manual, or you can contact the NHTSA's Auto Safety Hotline at 800-424-9393.