Automobile airbags have been a critical advance in driver and passenger safety, but they can cause injury or even death if not used properly.

The National Safety Council (NSC) estimates air bags saved more than 1,040 lives in 1998. However, there were almost 100 children killed by air bags during the same year. These deaths were because of children sitting in the front seat, being improperly fastened by seat belts, or not wearing seat belts at all.

Kids in the Back

The first rule for safe vehicle airbags is that frontal systems are not designed for youngsters. Frontal airbags can be dangerous or even fatal to the following:

  • Infants or babies in backward-facing child seats.
  • Small children in forward-facing child seats.
  • Older children belted only by the waist-belt, but not the shoulder belt.
  • Any child who is below the weight limit for the front seat and belt without a booster seat, which is typically about 12 years old.

Safety experts indicate the safest place for a child in a vehicle is in the back seat, fastened in a properly-fitted child car seat suited for the child's weight. Side or so-called curtain airbags are safe for children riding in the back. Parents and caregivers can seek assistance to properly fit and fasten their child seat at free clinics offered by firefighters, law-enforcement, or other organizations.

Even without airbags, the back seat of a vehicle is the safest place for a child to ride. As vehicles increasingly include frontal airbags, it is becoming more important to remember that children should be in the back seat at all times.

Bags Mean Belts

Air bag safety requires that all vehicle occupants be properly seated and wearing their seat belts. This means riders should be sitting upright with both feet on the ground. Both the lap belt and shoulder belt should be firmly and properly in place.

Airbags can cushion riders from the impact of a crash, but they deploy at speeds as high as 200 miles per hour. For airbags to be effective rather than harmful, riders must be correctly wearing their seat belts at all times.

Proper Position

Safety experts also caution drivers and passengers from being too close to the dashboard when the airbags are deployed. It is best to move the driver seat back as far as possible, while maintaining access to the brake, accelerator, steering wheel, and other controls. This is especially important for shorter drivers because they are naturally closer to the dashboard, and the risk of injury from airbag deployment is greater.

Riders in the passenger seat should also put their seat back as far as possible without disrupting any passengers behind them. This is intended to give the airbag some distance to deploy.

Another important thing to remember, along with good posture and proper seat belt use, is for the driver to generally keep his or her hands at the "10 and 2" positions. Hands should be gripping the steering wheel on the upper half of the steering wheel on both the left and right.

Are They Safe?

Airbags work with sensors that deploy the safety devices when a vehicle suddenly slows or stops. The sensors deploy the airbags by sending an electrical charge to spark a chemical reaction that results in the inflation of the airbag with nitrogen gas, taking air in from vents in the back of the airbag. Airbags also typically have tethers to center them. The process may leave smoke from the reaction or powder that is used to keep the airbag from crumpling or sticking together.

Despite their overall safety benefits, airbags continue to be a somewhat controversial technology. Some safety officials report that individuals are sometimes injured by airbags that have deployed in a low-impact collision.

Conversely, there are also complaints that airbags do not always deploy when they should. This includes high-impact collisions where drivers and passengers are injured.

In the end, however, airbags have been proven to be safer than the alternative. Make airbags as effective as possible by keeping children in the back seat, always wearing your seatbelt, and adjusting your seat to the proper position. Then, enjoy the safe ride!

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