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The 5 ways to practice best air bag safety

Rachel Hartman

best air bag safetyIf you get into a car crash, an air bag could save your life.

Since cars produced for the year 1999, the federal government has required automakers to install driver and passenger air bags for frontal impact protection in all cars, light trucks and vans.

But while air bags help save lives, they aren’t risk-free. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates that between 1990 and 2008, more than 290 deaths were caused by frontal air bag inflation in low-speed crashes. Of these, 90 percent occurred in cars manufactured before 1999.

In recent years, advances in air bag technology and safety awareness have greatly reduced the risk of air bag-related deaths.

Air bags, however, still need to be used in conjunction with the additional safety features in vehicles to provide the best protection.

Here are five expert tips on how to use your air bags safely.

How to practice best air bag safety

1. Buckle up.

Air bags may save lives, but seat belts are still the first step to take to increase safety in a vehicle. Wearing a seat belt is the most effective way to reduce the risk of injury and death in the event of a crash, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

In 2012, 12,174 lives were saved by seat belts, according to the NHTSA. In addition, 2,213 were save by frontal air bags that year.

While both seat belts and air bags increase safety, they offer optimal protection when used together.

“Just because you have an air bag in the car doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wear a seat belt,” says Danielle Cortes DeVito, EMT-P, a paramedic and safety media consultant.

If you’re buckled up, the seat belt will help make sure you are in the correct position – so if an air bag inflates in the event of a crash, it can protect your body.

2. Know where your air bags are — and practice proper positioning.

While most vehicles these days have frontal air bags, many also have side air bags. If you’re not sure where the air bags are in your car, check the owner’s manual for your vehicle.

To avoid injury from a fast-inflating frontal air bag, drivers should sit with their chest at least 10 inches away from the center of the steering wheel, recommends NHTSA.

If you’re unable to sit that far from the steering wheel and still reach the pedals, you can install pedal extenders.

If you have an adult passenger in the front seat, ask the rider to sit in the center of that seat, rather than close to the edges.

Also, don’t allow anyone to lean against the door when the vehicle is in use, Cortes DeVito says. In a crash, the side air bag could inflate with considerable speed and force. Anyone touching or sitting extremely close to an air bag runs the risk of getting injured when the device deploys.

3. Seat children correctly.

Infants riding in a rear-facing car seat that is placed in the front passenger seat of the car face tremendous risk. Air bags can kill young children riding in the front seat, according to the CDC.

Between 1993 and 1996, 38 children died from being struck by an air bag, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.

To keep small children safe, place infants in a rear-facing car seat in a back seat of the vehicle.

In addition, children 12 and younger should sit in the back seat, as well as any kids that weigh less than 100 pounds.

For further information on correctly seating children, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists safety guidelines for different age groups and types of car seats.

4. Be attentive when replacing air bags.

If an air bag in your car deploys when there’s no crash, or inflates in a minor crash, you’ll need to replace it.

But beware — some dishonest repair shops may install counterfeit air bags. Counterfeit air bags include those that aren’t manufactured by an original equipment manufacturer (OEM). These air bags may malfunction in a number of ways, such as not deploying in the event of a crash when they should inflate, or spraying shrapnel when they are deployed.

At the repair shop, “be present to make sure they’re ordering the air bag from the factory itself,” suggests Erica Eversman, founder of the Automotive Education & Policy Institute, a nonprofit organization.

5. Ask about air bags before you buy a vehicle.

If you’re buying a new car, it’s a good idea to check if your vehicle has any open recalls regarding air bags.

Typically the air bags inside a new car will be safe. However, to be on the safe side, you can note the vehicle identification number (VIN) of the car you’re looking at. It’s usually found in the vehicle title and registration. If you can’t find it, check the vehicle manual.

“Call the carmaker’s national customer-service or recall-information phone number, report the VIN and ask if it’s part of any open recalls regarding air bags,” says Carroll Lachnit, features editor at

Used cars, however, may require more scrutiny to make sure their air bags are safe. Factors to check for used cars include any recalls on the air bags in the vehicle, as well as whether the air bags in the car have been deployed in a crash.

For both of these, you’ll want to proceed carefully, especially if you’re buying the car from a private party.

When it comes to recalls, “not all car owners pay attention to recalls, and lots of used cars that are subject to recalls change hands every year without the buyer realizing there might be a problem,” Lachnit says.

For both new and used cars, you can check for open recalls by visiting the Car Maintenance Guide at

To see whether air bags have been deployed, you can ask the seller if the vehicle has been in a crash, and also if the air bags have been replaced.

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