The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says frontal airbags have saved thousands of lives since the federal government started to require this safety feature on all passenger vehicles in 1998.
Frontal airbags, however, deploy with tremendous force, NHTSA says. And that explosive power -- generally at a speed of up to 100 mph -- can cause serious or fatal injuries to children and small adults who sit too close to the steering wheel or dashboard.
To prevent airbag-related injuries, NHTSA and other safety groups recommend:
Children 12 and under, and smaller adults -- especially senior citizens -- ride in the back seat. They should always wear their seat belts;
Infants should never ride in the front seat of any vehicle that has a frontal airbag on the passenger side;
Small children should ride in a child safety seat that is approved for their age and size. They should always ride in the back seats. NHTSA says the safest position for a child safety seat is in the middle of the back seat;
Drivers should sit as far back as possible from the steering wheel. There should be at least 10 inches from the driver's breastbone to the center of the steering wheel;
All occupants should wear their shoulder harness and lap belts. NHTSA say the combination of frontal airbags and lap/shoulder belts reduces the risk of serious head injury in an accident by 85 percent.
On/Off switches for airbag systems are available, but NHTSA only allows consumers to install those devices if:
They have a medical condition that puts them at risk;
They can't adjust the driver's seat to keep them at least 10 inches from the steering wheel;
They can't avoid situations where a child 12 or under rides in the front seat.
Before consumers install an on/off switch, NHTSA advices they:
Discuss their medical condition with a physician to confirm the device is appropriate;
Get more space between themselves and the steering wheel by moving the seat farther back or adjusting the angle of the seatback. Pedal extenders are available for some vehicles;
Remember that children are safer in the back seat, with or without an airbag. Studies show that in more than 70% of accidents in which a child in the front seat was killed, a vacant seat in the back was available;
Contact their carmaker to see if an on/off switch is available for their vehicle. They're not on all models.
Consumers also need permission from NHTSA to install an airbag on/off switch. Forms are available on NHTSA's Web site: www.nhtsa.dot.gov. Consumers can also call NHTSA to request a form. The number is 1-888-327-4236.