riding with side airbags correctly



riding with side airbags correctly

Many cars now have side airbags and they can be excellent safety features,
but what alterations in riding habits do they require in order to minimize
the risk of injury from the side airbags themselves? Do owner's manuals
spell these out well, and do people follow them?

In vehicles equipped with side torso and side head airbags for front
passengers, do the front passengers need to give up riding around with one
arm hanging out an open window? Do they need to minimize how often/long
they stick their heads out of the windows while the vehicle is in traffic?
And most importantly, do they need to make sure to never fall asleep with
their head resting against the side of the vehicle?

Children (non-infants old enough to be out of carseats but still young enough to not be fully grown) should always ride in the rear seats to minimize danger from
front airbags, but what about side airbags here? Many vehicles have airbags
in the rear seats too. In particular, many vehicles, like the VW Passat
that is on top of everyone's best, safest family car list, have side head
curtain-style airbags that extend from the front to the back to protect
both front and rear passengers. Do children in the rear seats need to stay
away from the sides of the vehicle in general? While it may seem reasonable
to get adults in the front seats to not fall asleep against the side of the
vehicle, it would seem impossible to always prevent children from falling
asleep in the vehicle or assuming they do sleep to prevent them from
falling against the side of the vehicle and remaining there for extended
periods. This is not to mention preventing kids from eagerly staring out
the side windows with their faces pressed close to the glass, or out open
windows even.

Now obviously, kids with their heads next to the side windows are going
to be in trouble already in any severe side impact to the very spot
where they are sitting, but the side curtain airbags could easily deploy
due to a side impact that would not have come anywhere near the rear
seats of the vehicle. I don't know how they are set, or what real-world
deployments characteristcs are like, but I imagine the side airbags
could easily go off in an off-set corner crash that doesn't even involve
an external object pushing directly on the side of the vehicle (but that
might easily throw the occupant heads against the inside of the side of
the vehicle). What would happen to a child sleeping against the rear
side window if the side curtain airbag deployed?

How can anyone driving kids around in the backseat insure that the kids
don't end up in that configuration? Monitoring them from the driver's
seat would seem to create a distraction that is far more of a safety
hazard than than not having side curtain airbags that extend all the
way back to the rear seats in the first place.



Kids and Side Airbags

There have been no studies I know which have been done for any situations with children and side impacts, airbags or not.

The general consensus seems to be that side airbags probably pose little risk to children in harnessed carseats (infant, convertible, front-facing). Even so, most would recommend that they be disabled. I believe vehicles with rear side airbags are supposed to ship with them disabled, and then the customer can request that they be enabled at delivery.

A child in a booster, or even an adult are a different risk. If, as you suggest, they are leaning on the door or out the window, there is the possibility for injury. I believe side airbags inflate with much less force than frontal airbags, but the danger is still present. Manufacturers should be encouraged to equip side airbags with appropriate sensors to detect if a passenger is in harm's way. I believe the 2002 Honda Odyssey has such sensors, and I'm sure others do as well. This is an excellent feature, even if only for the front. Though the recommendation is that children 12 and under always ride in the back seat, the reality is that many parents don't know this, or choose otherwise.

Side impacts for children in carseats and the effects of side airbags will be widely studied in the next 5 years. New dummies designed for this purpose are already on the market. At a recent conference on child passenger safety, this issue was of great interest. As such, I think we will learn a lot more in the near future. Until then, the best advice is probably to keep kids away from side airbags, or have them disabled.


Re: Kids and Side Airbags

I've never heard of sensors for the side airbags not to deploy. Where do you find info on what vehicles have this feature?

The big problem is not so much the side torso airbags, which are separate for front and rear passengers, and as you point out usually ship disabled by default for the rear, but instead the curtain style side head airbags which cover both front and rear passengers in one airbag. This is rapidly becoming the most popular type of side head airbag protection (all VW/Audi head airbags for example, as well as many others). I've never heard of these being disabled. The problem with these is not kids riding in car seats, but children old enough to not be in car seats but still young enough to have less well developed bone density. Many such children are tall enough to be protected by the side head airbags, but as a result are tall enough to be injured by them too if they are leaning too close to the window when the airbag deploys.

As you say, this will be studied extensively in coming years, which is good. I wonder what VW/Audi/Volvo etc. owners manuals say about this issue in the meantime. It would be a shame to disable the curtain airbag to protect the children since this would remove protection for the front passenger heads (and for the children's or any other rear passenger's heads when they are sitting normally).



More details on children and rear side airbags

I have not seen a database with information on advanced side airbag features for all models. I did happen to see it noted in the press release for the 2002 Odyssey pertaining to its front seat passenger side airbag:


"The front passenger's side airbag has an automatic cutoff system that is designed to prevent side airbag deployment if a child (or small statured adult) leans into the side airbag deployment path. Once the child returns to an upright position, the side airbag will be able to deploy and provide protection in the event of a side impact."

I assume some other luxury makes may also have this feature, and I know many have similar sensors for passenger side frontal airbags. My impression is that side curtain airbags do not deploy with much force, and the photos I've seen usually show them to be rather high for adult passengers. As you say, I have not seen where this type can be disabled, though I suspect the risks are not as great as with a frontal airbag. Obviously, this is all speculation. I have not seen any owners manuals, though that is the best resource for a parent with questions. I do intend to read one the next time a car equipped with a curtain airbags comes into a carseat checkup event where I volunteer.

The NHTSA did issue an advisory on this topic on 10/14/99. Here's some text:

"Since children should be seated in the rear seat, NHTSA has asked each manufacturer of vehicles with REAR side airbags to ship the vehicles to dealers with these airbags deactivated, unless the manufacturer has determined that those side air bags impose no significant risk to children...."

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