According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, frontal air bags saved more than 39,000 lives between 1987 and 2013.
Intended as supplemental restraint systems (SRS), air bags work with your car's lap and shoulder safety belts to provide additional protection in the event of an impact.
Despite their success as safety devices, earlier-generation air bags were sometimes associated with serious or even fatal injuries. Most often, these injuries occurred because passengers weren't wearing safety belts, or children weren't in appropriate safety seats and weren't riding in the rear seat when the bag deployed.
Developments in new air bag systems are lessening the likelihood of injury, but the real success may depend on the safety precautions that the driver and passengers take while in the car.
Your vehicle's owner's manual will provide specific information about its air bag, but these general tips may add to your margin of safety:
- Always wear safety belts. An air bag system is not a substitute for safety belts. All the elements of a vehicle's safety system are designed to work together.
- Have all children 12 and under ride properly restrained and in the backseat. And never place a rear-facing child safety seat in front of an airbag. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers more information about child passenger safety best practices.
- Watch for the air bag malfunction indicator lamp. If it remains lit more than 10 seconds after vehicle start-up, it indicates that a problem with the air bag system is present. Have the problem diagnosed and repaired immediately.
When to disable air bags
Some air bag systems have an on-off switch, but think twice before you disable the system (most require a certified technician to do the job). It may be appropriate to disable the system if:
- There are fewer than 10 inches between the driver's body and the center of the steering wheel.
- There's no other option for transporting a child under 12 but in the front seat.
- You have a medical condition that would put you at risk during an air bag deployment.
Learn more about the use of the on-off switch from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.