Press Releases

2000 Releases

Airbags Hurt Young Kids But Protect Older Children, New Study Finds

For immediate release: October 30, 2000

BOSTON, MA--It has become widely accepted that airbags are dangerous to young children sitting in the front seat of a motor vehicle. A new study by scientists at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis finds airbags actually reduce the risk of fatality for children aged 9-12.

Across the entire age range from 0 to 12, authors Roberta Glass, Maria Segui-Gomez, and John D. Graham, director of the Center, found:

  • A child seated in the front seat of a vehicle with an airbag and restrained by a seat belt is 31 percent more likely to be killed in a crash than if they are restrained but there is no air bag present.
  • If the child is not restrained, the risk of death is 84% higher in the front seat when exposed to an airbag.
But the study finds that for the subgroup of restrained children aged 9-12, the risk of being killed is 39% lower if the child is seated in the front and has an airbag compared with seat belt use only. In other words, airbags are protective for restrained children in this age group.

Senior author Graham comments that these findings, based on 16,177 children involved in fatal crashes in the U.S. from 1989 to 1998 (model years 1990-1999), "pose a challenge to airbag suppliers and vehicle manufacturers, who are devising advanced airbag systems that will not deploy if a child is seated in the front-passenger seat. It may be difficult to design systems that can accurately distinguish children who would benefit from airbag deployment from those who would be harmed."

The findings suggest that industry and government should continue to promote rear-seating for children ages 0 to 9. For the entire age range from infant through age 12, rear seating reduced fatality risk by 21% for those wearing seat belts and 29% for those that were unrestrained. The study shows that seating 9-12 year-olds in the rear offers roughly the same protection as seating them in front of an airbag, assuming seat belt use.

Most of the data in the study deal with so-called 'first generation' airbags installed in vehicles sold before 1997. There are approximately 50 million such vehicles on the road. But the work was able to factor out and analyze model years 1998 and 1999, when more sophisticated 'second generation' or 'depowered' airbags were in use. These devices are designed to go off with less power, producing less risk.

The authors found that depowered airbags have a lower risk of causing fatality. Depowered airbags are 10% less likely than first generation airbags to cause fatality for children through age 12 for model year 1998, and 50% less risky for that age group for model year 1999. The findings for these two model years, however, are based on limited data and have wide confidence intervals.

One of the study limitations is the lack of information in crash data systems about a child's height or weight. The study used age of child instead of height or weight because only age is recorded in the federal government's Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS). Another study limitation is the lack of information in the FARS database on whether restraints were properly used at the time of the crash.

The study was published in the most recent issue of Risk Analysis, an international, peer-reviewed journal sponsored by the Society for Risk Analysis, a professional organization of 2,500 engineers and scientists.

For further information, please contact:

David Ropeik, Director of Risk Communication, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis
Phone: 617 432-6011

Roberta Glass – 978 579-7996

John Graham, Director, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, 
Phone: 617 432-4343