Are airbags safe for children?

Posted by Julie Monson on

are airbags safe for children


Airbags are a crucial safety feature in modern cars and have saved many adults’ lives, but are they safe for children?

Airbags have saved countless adults’ lives, but can cause severe or even fatal injuries in children. An airbag inflates in approximately 20 milliseconds after a crash. The thin nylon airbag gets an immediate injection of hot nitrogen gas, which makes it expand so quickly that it forces it out from the dashboard at about 257 km/h. This can cause severe burns and facial fractures in adults. 

Airbags can be seriously dangerous for children under 12 years if they sit in the front seat. Their musculoskeletal systems are still developing, and their head is larger than an adult's in relation to their body size. So it's harder for children to brace themselves in even a gentle collision as they don’t have the strength to do so. This means that they face a greater risk of the blunt force of the bag as it deploys.

airbag warning for children


Children are in much more danger when sitting in the front seat; not only due to the risk of the force of the airbag, but they are also closer to the force of a frontal impact, which is the most dangerous type of accident. 

In America, it is recommended that children under 13 years remain in the backseat. Most experts would agree.  

In Sweden, however, they often use the front seat for rear facing car seats. Although it is agreed that the child is closer to the impact in a frontal collision, they believe that the dashboard provides good protection. Swedish parents often opt to use the front seat to keep their children rear facing for longer, as it keeps children calmer in the car when parents can attend to their needs and communicate with them. Some parents find it less distracting, and therefore safer, to be able to reach and see their child. 

It is important to note that it can also be distracting having your child up front where you are constantly aware of what they are doing.    The front seat can also be a good option for families with a bakkie or 2-door sports car, or who have more than 2 children, if you cannot fit them all in the back seat.    

Is is safest to keep children in the back seat if this is possible for your family.

is the front seat safe for children


It is extremely dangerous to install a rear facing car seat in front of an active airbag, and it is illegal to do so. 

This is due to the very high speed it is deployed at. If that were to hit the back of your child’s rear facing car seat, it would slam your baby into the backrest of the passenger seat, causing serious or fatal injuries.  

You can only install a rear facing car seat on the front seat IF the airbag can be disabled. This is not possible in all cars. Some cars’ airbags can be deactivated with a key or button, but others require you to go to the manufacturer to do it. 

Many manufacturers in South Africa refuse to do this, due to legal risks to them. You may be required to inform your insurance if you disable the airbags. Some manuals advise that you should also push the front seat back as far away from the dash board as possible, to move your child further away from potential force of the impact. Always refer to your vehicle and car seat manuals to determine if the front seat is permitted for installation.


There is not a straightforward answer to this question, as it differs between vehicles. You will need to check your vehicle AND car seat manuals to see if and how a forward facing car seat may be installed on the front seat. 

If you have an isofix car seat, it may not be possible to install it on the front passenger seat if your car does not have isofix brackets there, which many do not have. Some cars prohibit the use of a forward facing car seat or booster to be installed on the front seat. Some cars permit it, but you’ll need to check your vehicle manual to see if the airbag must be on or off, and if the front seat must be pushed away from the dashboard.

If there are any passengers sitting behind the front passenger seat, it is also important to consider their safety too. If the front seat is pushed too far back, they may be at risk of head and leg injuries in a crash. Remember that if there is another forward facing car seat or booster installed behind it, it needs to be placed 55cm away from the front seat to prevent this. 

forward facing car seat and airbags


Side airbags are usually a curtain airbag which deploys downward to provide protection to the head and are not as powerful as the front seat airbags. 

Studies conducted by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) concluded that no children are known to have been seriously or fatally injured by a side airbag. 

In conclusion, side airbags should not pose a risk to a child in a child seat in the rear, but provide added protection. Always ensure that the child seat is installed correctly and try to prevent your child seat from leaning close to, or against, the door or window. Children and even adults should avoid leaning against the door or window. 

The car seat or booster’ side wings will help to stop a sleeping child's head resting against the side window. If in doubt, always contact the vehicle manufacturer to check how far the side airbags extend if they deploy and whether they are likely to make contact with your car seat.

If there are other types of airbags in the car, check the vehicle manual or ask the vehicle manufacturer how far they come out as they deploy and whether it is safe to use a car seat near the airbag.

side airbags and car seats


In conclusion, the back seat is the safest place in the car for children under 13 years of age. If you do need to use the front seat, the front passenger airbag MUST be turned OFF if a rear facing car seat is installed up front. If you install a forward facing car seat or booster, you will need to check your vehicle and car seat manuals to determine if it is permitted to install on the front seat, and if so, how it must be done. 


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