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If airbags protect us, why should we deactivate them when children are in the car and under what circumstances?

If airbags protect us, why should we deactivate them when children are in the car and under what circumstances?


Seat belts work alongside airbags. Seat belts prevent us from flying out of our seats and airbags absorb energy, stopping us from being hurt in an accident. However, airbags are not always beneficial for everyone and, on occasions, it's more recommendable to deactivate them than leave them activated. In particular, we are referring to the case of children and in those exceptional situations when they can ride up front with a car seat.

Airbags and seat belts make an accident less serious than it could be in principle. This is because airbags prevent passengers from hitting the dashboard and they come to a more gradual halt.

A study by the United States Transport Department, NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) indicates that the combination of an airbag and seat belt have prevented 75 percent of serious head injuries and 66 percent of serious chest injuries. In fact, the majority of injuries that airbags cause are minor cuts, bruises and abrasions, which are minor injuries compared with what could have happened. Nevertheless, we must make it clear that airbags without a seat belt are not effective, and could even be more dangerous.

Since October 1 last year, minors who are 135 cm tall and under must always use an approved child restraint system that is duly adapted to their height and weight, always in the back of the vehicle. There are some exceptions:

  • If the vehicle does not have back seats. 
  • If all the back seats are already occupied by other minors with the same characteristics. 
  • If it's not possible to install the child restraint systems in these seats.

In these cases, the child restraint system can be placed in the front. If the vehicle has a front airbag (a system that is in most new automobiles), it must be deactivated. Before doing so, we must check that the airbag ca actually be deactivated. Not all automobiles offer this option. If it can't be deactivated, it's recommended that the minor shouldn't ride up front.

The safest way to travel, especially for babies under 15 months, is to ride facing backward. At the Fundación MAPFRE we recommend this until they are 4 years old. If the child rides up front, there's a possibility that the airbag is activated in an accident. In this case, the airbag will put pressure on the car seat and the child against the seat.

Side airbags normally deploy in a downward motion and aren't a risk, in fact they provide greater safety. In any case, NHTSA recommends analyzing each vehicle separately and analyzing how airbags are deployed, looking into the possibility of them injuring a child traveling in a child restraint system. In any case, we remind you that the most recommendable position when a child is traveling in the back is in the middle facing backward as long as possible.

The Children's Hospital of Philadelphia insists on the importance of not placing a baby in a child safety seat facing backward in the front seat with the airbag activated. They point out that the safest place for under 13s is in the back.

They also point out that children over 13 can sit in the front provided that they have their seat belt on and the seat is as far back as possible. The child should also be taught not to lean forward and to sit vertically with their back against the seat.

This video shows how a front airbag can be dangerous for both children in child restraint systems (in the case of an accident, they slip and come into full impact with the airbag) and for children in car seats facing backward.

Meanwhile, in a crash test of child car seats carried out by the National Association of Pediatrics, the brands PLAY and RACE show the dangers of not deactivating the airbag when child seats are facing backward in the front of the car. A dummy was used to simulate an 18 month old baby, sitting correctly and with their legs stretched out, facing backward at 50 km/h.

The impact caused the body to slide to the windshield and the head hit the dashboard. The airbag covered the face and thorax of the infant; this can result in serious cuts and bruises.

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