Are car airbags safe for mums-to-be, babies and children?

When is it safe to have the airbag switched on, and when can it do more harm than good? MFM investigates what pregnant women and parents need to know about in-car safety.

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When it comes to road safety, airbags save lives. It’s a fact.  But what happens when you’re pregnant, or if you’re travelling with a baby or child? Is it still safe to use them, or should they be switched off?

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The idea of an airbag is to create a soft pillow to lean into if the car you are travelling in crashes. RoSPA (The Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents) estimates that since their introduction in the UK 1,500 lives have been saved by airbags. But in certain circumstances it seems that an airbag can do more harm than good.

Pregnant women

Feeling protective of your bump is part of being pregnant, so it’s natural to wonder what the effect of a rapidly inflating airbag might be on you and your unborn baby.

Recent research from the University of Washington School of Public Health in Seattle, USA, states that if a car airbag inflates in front of a pregnant woman, it’s unlikely to increase the risk of complications in your pregnancy, such as foetal distress, or the chance of you having to have a caesarean.

However, at the same time the researchers found the chance of an unborn baby dying after mum was involved in an accident was 1% with an airbag, but just 0.3% without an airbag. Given that the researchers looked at nearly 3,500 accidents there does seem to be some risk but still, the advice is to keep the bag switched on.

According to Chris Patience from the AA, pregnant women travelling in the front of the car should push the passenger seat as far back as possible to avoid their bump taking the full force of the airbag.

And if you’re the driver, you need to be aware of the 10-inch rule. “It is generally accepted that drivers who sit more than 10 inches from the centre of the steering wheel will benefit most from the airbag”, Chris says.

What’s important to remember is that airbags are not substitutes for seatbelts – they’re designed to work with them. And whilst it might be uncomfortable to wear a seat belt when you’re pregnant, it will improve safety for both you and your unborn baby.

Babies and young toddlers

For parents of newborns or babies travelling in rear facing car seats, the advice is clear – the airbag must be turned off. It’s the law.

RoSPA explains that rear facing infant car seats (Group 0 and Group 0+) must not be used in the front seat of the car when the air bag is switched on because airbags inflate so quickly (up to 200mph). At this speed an airbag striking a rear facing car seat is likely to push the baby car seat towards the back of the car, or even split it in two.

The Department of Transport has a stark warning for parents who do not turn the airbag off: “Airbags are powerful safety devices. A rear facing child seat would be hit when a frontal airbag is deployed – and could be thrown up and towards the rear of the vehicle. This means that the child seat and child could be completely unrestrained in a crash.”

Children in car seats or booster seats (up to 135cm in height)

For children travelling in forward facing car seats, the advice is less clear. Children of any age can travel in the front seat of the car, as long as they’re using the appropriate car seat or booster seat and they’re buckled in. A car seat or booster seat puts them in the right position so that they get the maximum protection from the adult seatbelt.

But when it comes to the airbag, parents have two options. “In this situation, we recommend disabling the airbag. This goes against what many people say but we believe it is the safest option,” says David Evans, a Car Safety Specialist from Which? magazine.

“A child’s head is disproportionately big compared to its body. As a result, the full impact of an airbag hitting them would be to cause severe head and neck injuries. This is because children have weaker neck, back and stomach muscles than adults and they cannot stay upright in a crash.”

The second option is to leave the airbag turned on. If you decide to do this it’s wise to move the car seat back as far as possible on its runners. This will maximise the distance between child and airbag and will reduce the force with which the airbag will strike your child.

This best advice is to avoid using the front of the car at all. “There is nothing illegal about young children travelling in the front of the car,” says a spokesperson for the Child Accident Prevention Trust. “However, the rear of a car is always a safer place to travel”.

Children who are out of car seats (over 135cm in height)

Once your child reaches 12 years of age, or 135cm, they no longer need to use a booster seat. So it seems natural to assume that sitting in the front of the car, with the airbag turned on, is a safe place to travel.

But take the case of Chloe Bunney. In May 2009, Chloe was killed by a passenger airbag while travelling in the front passenger seat of her mum’s car, despite wearing a seatbelt. Chloe was 10 at the time of the crash, in which her mum swerved into the path of another vehicle.

According to a report in the Daily Mail, “she suffered a fractured skull when the airbag smashed into her…”. And although she was only 10, at 149cm she was 14cm taller than the 135cm height limit.

Some research suggests that airbags may actually increase the risk of death and injury for the under 10s. This is because children aren’t yet strong enough to stay sitting upright in a crash.

One American study of 9,779 crashes found that the risk of any injury (both minor and serious) to under the 15s travelling in the front seat of the car was 86% with an airbag, but 55% without one.

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The advice for parents then is to avoid the front seat if at all possible. The safest place for children to travel is the back seat of the car. “The middle of the second row of seats has been shown to be the safest place for children to travel,” says Evans. And armed with the facts it seems sensible to follow the advice.

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