This year, over 20 million American vehicles will have passenger side air bags, a safety feature soon to become standard on all new cars. Designed to inflate rapidly, the air bags prevent passengers from hitting the windshield or dashboard in a collision. Air bags - a great safety feature on vehicles - have deployed in more than 850,000 and reduced driver deaths in frontal crashes by 30 percent nationally. Although air bags were designed to save lives, they can Dose a very serious risk to children. Although 500 drivers lives were saved by air bags in 1995, 15 children died of air bag-related injuries during the same period. In eleven of the crashes, the children were not wearing safety belts or were not wearing them properly. In other crashes, the force of the passenger side air bag's deployment killed four infants riding in rear-facing car seats.
Children are at increased risk for air bag-related injuries because of their size. The vehicle seat belts, when worn, do not fit most children correctly. As a result, children often place the shoulder belt behind them and perch on the edge of the vehicle seat. This positioning, combined with the child's short stature, places the child's face and neck directly in the path and full velocity of the deploying air bag. This turns a minor 10-mile-per-hour crash into a 140 -mile per hour head impact with the passenger-side air bag. The risk of death in a car crash with a passenger side air bag is extremely high for unrestrained children and for infants in rear-facing child seats.
Because of the above information, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following:
* The safest place for infants to ride is in the back seat of the vehicle. In a collision, the rigid seat supports the baby's back, neck and head.
* Never put a baby in the front seat of a vehicle equipped with a passenger-side air bag (see owners' manual). An infant weighing under 20 lbs. or younger than one year,must always ride in a rear-facing child safety seat in the back seat of the vehicle.
For Children over 20 pounds:
* To greatly improve a child's chances of surviving a crash and avoiding serious injury, place them in the rear seat, properly restrained. Children riding in the front seat are at risk if they are improperly restrained, out of position or too small for the safety belt to fit correctly. In a crash, little ones can easily slide forward on the seat, and the inflating air bag can hit them in the head or neck. Whether the vehicle has an air bag or not, children are up to 29 percent safer riding in the back seat, as compared to the front seat.
* In an emergency and the child must ride in the front seat, make sure he or she is correctly restrained and then move the vehicle seat completely back, away from the air bag.
* For children over 40 pounds but too small to wear a lap and shoulder belt properly, use a car booster seat to obtain correct positioning of the lap and shoulder belt The lap belt must fit snugly across the child's upper thighs (not abdomen). The shoulder belt should cross the youngster's shoulder and chest.
* Never place a shoulder belt under the child's arm, belt two children together or hold a child in someone’s arms while traveling.
* Parents should set a good example by always using both lap and shoulder belts.
Presently, parents with passenger-seat air bags in their cars have no choice but to put their child in the back seat, even if that may not be a good idea in some circumstances (the child is sick or needs close attention). Car manufacturers are working on "smart air bag systems" that would read the weight and position on the occupant, along with the severity of the crash, and adjust the force of the air bag's deployment accordingly. In addition, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is excepted to issue proposed rules concerning the availability of cutoff switches and circumstances where owners can have air bags disconnected. For now, the best way to give children a safe ride is to place them in the rear seat. Infants should be properly secured in rear facing car seats, and older children properly restrained by a lap and shoulder belt.