A car with an air bag is considered safer than a car without one. But for children under 12 years old, air bags can be dangerous.
In fact, no child younger than 12 or under 65 pounds should sit in the front seat of a car equipped with passenger-side air bags, according to both the Department of Transportation and the National Transportation Safety Board.
The safest place for children is in the center of the back seat, using a lap-and-shoulder seat belt or a child's safety seat, according to Elaine Weinstein, director of the Office of Safety Recommendations and Communications for the safety board. Children under 4 feet 9 inches tall should ride in booster seats.
If a child must ride up front, the seat should be moved as far back as it can go and the child should be buckled up properly. And the child must be sitting on his bottom with his back up against the back of the seat, Ms. Weinstein says.
"We don't want to scare people away from air bags," she says. "Air bags save lives."
But all things in good time, she says. Children will graduate to air bag protection as they grow. For now, they need special consideration because they are smaller and lighter.
In crashes, kids are propelled forward and get hit by air bags that are not fully inflated. Air bags inflate rapidly -- in less than 1/20th of a second. And they move at speeds of up to 200 mph. The force is enough to kill, decapitate or cause severe head injuries.
"Children tend to wiggle around a lot in cars because it's hard for them to get comfortable in seats designed for adults," says Ms. Weinstein. They often scoot up in the seat, closer to the dashboard. So the air bag doesn't have the room to fully inflate before reaching the child, she says.
A fully inflated bag cushions passengers; a bag that is still moving jolts them. Because children are lighter, an air bag can lift them off the seat and cause them to hit their heads on the car's ceiling or dome light.
Infants in rear-facing car seats are the most at risk because their heads are so close to the dashboard. The American Academy of Pediatrics warns parents never to put a rear-facing car seat in a front seat with an air bag. The AAP says any child under 20 pounds must be in a rear-facing car seat for proper protection.
According to the Department of Transportation, even low-speed crashes in which the air bag deployed have killed children riding in the front seat.
Car manufacturers now install cut-off switches that let drivers turn off an air bag when a child is riding up front. The automotive industry also is working on "smart" air bags that will sense whether someone is too close or not properly belted.
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