When you drive a car full of kids — your own children or a car pool with your children and their friends, classmates, or teammates — there's plenty to worry about. But if you can't lighten the load in your car, you can take a load off your mind, thanks to regulations from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
Air bags save adults but can be deadly to children in the front seat. An air bag inflates at about 200 MPH, a dangerous force to small children. Seat belts hold passengers back while air bags inflate, but children easily slip off the shoulder belt to reach a toy or fiddle with the radio. Then, they are in the line of fire. "By nature, children are squiggly and wiggly, and seat belts don't fit them properly, so they are likely to be out of position," says Marilyn Bull, M.D., member of the American Academy of Pediatrics committee on injury and poison prevention. Also, a rear-facing infant seat in front of an air bag places a baby's head at the dashboard, where the air bag deploys.
If a child 12 or under must ride in front, you can install an on-off switch for your passenger-side air bag. Here's how to get the switch:
- Get a NHTSA information brochure and request form from a car dealership, repair shop, or state motor vehicle office, or call the NHTSA at (800) 424-9393.
- Complete the form, which certifies that you read the brochure and that you can't avoid placing a child in the front seat. Send it to the NHTSA.
- When you receive an authorization letter, go to a dealership or service center to have the switch installed. It probably will cost about $150 to $200.
You should install a switch only if a child absolutely must ride in front. "The back seat is the safest place for children, whether or not your car has an air bag," says Dr. Bull. A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety reveals that, even in cars without air bags, riding in back reduces a child's risk of death by 35 percent.
When you flip the switch, remember the basics. "You still need to make sure that children are buckled up correctly," urges Janet Dewey, executive director of the Air Bag Safety Campaign in Washington, DC. Place infants in rear-facing safety seats until they are at least one year old and weigh at least 20 pounds. Children between one and four belong in forward-facing safety seats. Kids can sit in booster seats, which position the shoulder-lap belt correctly, until they are eight to 10 and weigh about 80 pounds. Check your safety or booster seat manufacturer's recommendations for weight limits. Older children -- and adults -- should use the vehicle's safety belt.
"The greatest risk to children is not air bags, it's riding unrestrained," says Bull. "The vast majority of deaths and injuries to children could be prevented by parents having them properly restrained."