Should children sit in front of an airbag?

The answer to this airbag question isn’t a simple yes or no. What we do know is that the benefits of an airbag outweigh the risks.

Countless people could tell you first hand that an airbag saved their life or reduced the severity of their injury in a crash.

The fact remains though that airbags are designed for adults not children.

To decide if a child can sit in front of a frontal airbag ask the following questions:

  • How old is the child?
  • Do they need to travel in a child restraint or booster seat?
  • Does the car have a back seat?

Airbags are designed for adults

Airbags were first seen in cars in the USA and Canada. These airbags aimed to address the problem of people not wearing seatbelts. These early airbags designed before 1998 deployed quickly and aggressively. This also led to around 100 child passengers being killed over the next 2 years. Some of these children were also unrestrained.

In Australia, the airbags used deploy less aggressively. There haven’t been any adult or child deaths from airbags in Australia and reports of injury are low.

There haven’t been any adult or child deaths from airbags in Australia and reports of injury are low

Airbags are designed to protect people who are similar in size or bigger than a small adult female. An average 12 year old child is about the size of a small adult female. This is where the expert recommendation comes from. Children should be older than 12 (meaning at least 13 years old) before they travel in the front seat. Children 12 years and younger are more at risk of injury from an airbag than an adult. Also, the risk of injury in a crash is lower for children who travel in the back seat.

Children 12 years or younger are at greater risk of injury than adults if an airbag compared to an adults  

It’s important to remember we’re talking about the front seat and the frontal passenger airbag. Curtain and torso airbags have not been found to pose any risk to properly restrained children. It’s still a good idea for kids to avoid resting any part of their body on the window sill or door where there is an airbag.

Car seat top tether infographic

Are there any laws about airbags?

The road rules describe where children can sit in cars and what type of car seat they can legally travel in, regardless of whether an airbag is fitted or not.

In Australia both rearward and forward facing car seats have top tethers. So to be correctly installed, they need to be secured by this top tether to an anchor point. It is common for cars with 2 rows of seats to have up to 3 anchor points across the second row of seats but not common for the front seat.

Legally a child can travel in the front seat once they are 7 years old. Booster seats without a top tether can be used in the front seat if there isn’t an anchor point available. From a safety perspective a child should only travel in the front if there are no other options. This means in a situation where there’s no room on the back seat or there is no back seat (e.g. in utes). Keep in mind that it’s safest for children to travel in the second row of seats until they are older than 12.

What are the laws on where children can sit in cars?

The law on where children can sit in cars says

  • from birth to under 4 years children must travel in the back seat in cars with two or more rows of seats
  • children who are 4 to younger than 7 years can only travel in the front seat if all available back seats are being used by younger children.
  • 7 years and older can legally travel in the front seat

What this means is that parents must transport children in the back seat (second row) before they consider using the front seat if their car has a back seat.

While children who are 7 years or older can legally travel in the front seat, this doesn’t mean they should. As with the rule on transitioning children from one car seat to another, 7 years is a minimum and strong evidence that tells us that children should be much older before it’s safe for them to travel in the front seat.

What if the only option is the front seat with an airbag?

For some families the front seat is the only option. Some vehicles such as utes only have 1 row of seats, so the law on where children can sit in car doesn’t apply. Other families may have 3 kids that need to fit in the back so one has to travel in the front. If this is your situation, the law allows for children 4 years and older to travel in the front but this option should be used as a last resort. Remember that travelling in the back seat (second row) is safest for children.

babies in a rear facing seat can never travel in the front seat
Babies in a rear facing seat should never travel in the front seat where there is an airbag

Babies travelling in a rear facing seat

Babies in a rear facing seat should never travel in the front seat where there is an airbag even if there is an anchor point. A warning label like the one below explains that parents should never use a rear facing seat in the front seat because of the high risk of injury.

If the front seat is the only option and the child is no longer in a rear facing restraint, the seat of the car should be moved back as far as possible from the airbag. Children should also be discouraged from leaning forward.

Car seats with a top tether

When there isn’t a back seat option, such as utes, parents can use a forward facing seat or booster that is tethered to an anchor point.

Booster seat without a top tether

If there isn’t an anchor point available, parents can only use a booster that does not have a tether for children who have outgrown a forward facing car seat.

If there is no anchor point and you want to have one installed, this isn’t a quick and easy exercise. It can be very costly and the work needs to be checked by an engineer.

Written by Elvira Lazar, Research and Policy Officer
July 22, 2016