Children and Airbags

This archived article is from March 1998. Although every effort has been made to make sure the information presented is accurate, please note that it may contain information that is out-of-date.

If you have air bags, is your vehicle safe for children?

Absolutely yes, says the Canada Safety Council. The keys to protecting your children in the car are to drive defensively and make sure they are properly restrained. Millions of vehicles in Canada now have air bags. There is abundant evidence that air bags, used in conjunction with seat-belts, save lives.

Transport Canada has estimated they saved 100 lives in 1996, while four people (including two children) were killed - none of whom appears to have been properly restrained. Air bags are an evolving technology. Many of the concerns currently being expressed will be addressed in the near future as air bag systems become more advanced. "Smart" air bags are being developed, which will inflate according to such factors as seat-belt use, occupant size, occupant presence and closeness to the air bag module.

Are passenger side air bags dangerous? Media reports unfortunately have led to fears that air bags can kill and injure children. These fears have been reinforced by a new message, that children 12 and under must sit in the back to protect them from possible air bag deployment. The question of whether children are safe in the front seat becomes more troubling with growing consumer demand for pick-up trucks and other utility/specialty vehicles which may have no back seat whatsoever.

The Canada Safety Council has seen no credible, relevant data that air bag deployment poses a serious risk for properly restrained persons. The one exception is that a rear facing infant seat must never be used in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger side air bag; current rear facing infant seats were not designed for use with passenger side air bags. Recent data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the U.S. (Status Report, December 7, 1996) show that air bags do not endanger properly restrained children:

  • Air bags reduced fatalities among right front-seat occupants ages 10 to 64 by 23 per cent in frontal crashes.
  • With children nine and under, fatalities were about 33 per cent higher "than expected" in frontal crashes. Consider that, of the 31 children killed by deploying air bags, nine (i.e. 27 per cent) were infants in rear-facing restraints - which almost accounts for those above the "expected" number. These children should never have been seated in the front passenger position.
  • Of the remaining 22 child fatalities, 17 were believed to be unbelted, three were believed to be using lap belts only, and two were using lap/shoulder belts but may have been sitting on the seat edge. It is highly likely none of them was properly restrained.

Proper restraint the solution

The underlying issue is that children must be properly restrained. Statistics show that only about four per cent of Canadian children are properly restrained to legal and manufacturer specifications. (Yes, that was four, as in 1, 2, 3, 4.) Whether they are in the front or back seat, this puts them seriously at risk.

In 1989, the National Occupant Restraint Program set a goal of 95 per cent seat-belt usage by the year 1995 (95 by '95). This program involved collaboration of provincial and federal agencies, including police, and safety organizations. As a result, seat-belt use among adults in the front seat has risen to well over 90 per cent. The Canada Safety Council is very concerned about the dismal record for restraint of children and has identified this issue as a top priority for national action.

Air bags add protection, not risk

Pockets of opposition to seat-belts lasted for a long time after provincial legislation came into effect. In 1988, seat-belt legislation was challenged and initially overturned in Alberta. This led to a drop in usage from 83 per cent to 45 per cent, with a related increase in deaths and injuries. If provincial governments and safety agencies across Canada had allowed opponents of seat-belts to have their way, usage would have fallen significantly as it did in Alberta before a higher court ruled in favor of the legislation. The result: hundreds more Canadians would be dying in collisions every year.

In a similar way, fuelled by media reports, air bags are now being challenged. If the current paranoia about air bags were to lead to widespread deactivation, we could reasonably expect an increase in traffic fatalities - people who could have been saved by an air bag.

Moreover, deactivating an air bag is not as easy as it may sound. Some vehicles with air bags have less tension in the front shoulder belts than required without an air bag. Some may not meet current Canadian crashworthiness standards without the air bag. Do-it-yourselfers may be injured by an accidental deployment if they try to deactivate an air bag.

Evidence clearly shows more people are killed in vehicles without air bags than those with air bags. Beyond doubt, deactivating an air bag increases the risk of death or serious injury.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that air bags have saved about 1,000 lives in the U. S. since 1987. This is the success against which air bag injuries should be assessed. A study found that 96 per cent of all injuries induced by air bags - injuries involving about 160,000 Americans - were minor ones, such as contusions or abrasions. Only about one per cent were serious or fatal.

Why would anyone want less protection in case of a crash?

Air bag basics

  • Driving defensively is always the best safety measure.
  • Children must be properly restrained, whether in the front or back seat.
  • Never place a rear facing infant seat in the front of a vehicle with a passenger side air bag.
  • Used in conjunction with seat-belts, air bags save lives.
  • Air bag deactivation will not enhance safety for properly restrained vehicle occupants.