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Frontal air bags have saved more than 50,000 lives over a 30-year period. 

Learn about the safety benefits of frontal and side air bags when used with seat belts — which will always be the best line of defense for drivers and passengers. Also receive important guidance on how to safely position yourself and your passengers, as well as young ones in car seats and booster seats to prevent injury from air bags in a crash. 

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Air bags are supplemental protection and are designed to work best in combination with seat belts. Both frontal and side-impact air bags are generally designed to deploy in moderate to severe crashes and may deploy in even a minor crash.

Air bags reduce the chance that your upper body or head will strike the vehicle's interior during a crash. To avoid an air-bag-related injury, make sure you are properly seated and remember—air bags are designed to work with seat belts, not replace them. And children under 13 should sit in the back seat.

How Air Bags Work

Traffic Safety Facts

Vehicles can be equipped with both front and side air bags. Frontal air bags have been standard equipment in all passenger vehicles since the late 1990s. Side air bags are being offered as standard or optional equipment on many new passenger vehicles.

Air Bag Deployment

Generally, when there is a moderate to severe crash, a signal is sent from the air bag system's electronic control unit to an inflator within the air bag module. An igniter in the inflator starts a chemical reaction that produces a harmless gas, which inflates the air bag within the blink of an eye – or less than 1/20th of a second. Because air bags deploy very rapidly, serious or sometimes fatal injuries can occur if the driver or passenger is too close to – or comes in direct contact with – the air bag when it first begins to deploy.

Frontal Air Bags

Sitting as far back from the steering wheel or dashboard as possible and using seat belts help prevent drivers and passengers from being "too close" to a deploying frontal air bag. This is why rear-facing car seats should not be placed in front of an active air bag, and children under 13 should be seated in the back seat. 

Side Air Bags

Side-impact air bags inflate even more quickly since there is less space between the driver or passengers and the striking object, whether the interior of the vehicle, another vehicle, a tree, or a pole. 

Stay Protected: Replace Used Air Bags After a Crash

Air bags can only deploy once, so make sure you replace used air bags right away after a crash, only at an authorized repair center, and before you drive the vehicle again.

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Takata air bags, installed in tens of millions of U.S. vehicles, are subject to recall due to a safety defect that may cause them to explode and result in serious injury or death. If your car or truck is included in this list of Takata air bag-affected vehicles, contact your dealer for the appropriate repair. For full coverage of the Takata recall, support for consumers, and the latest news, visit NHTSA’s Recalls Spotlight

URGENT: Air Bag Safety Recalls

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ON-OFF Switch

There are few circumstances under which the risk of sitting in front of an active frontal air bag outweigh the safety benefits. Under these circumstances, NHTSA will authorize the installation of an air bag ON-OFF switch. Authorization will be granted under the following four circumstances:

  1. A rear-facing infant restraint must be placed in the front seat of a vehicle because there is no rear seat or the rear seat is too small for the child restraint. (For the passenger air bag only.)
  2. A child under 13 years of age must ride in the front seat because the child has a condition that requires frequent medical monitoring in the front seat. (For the passenger air bag only.)
  3. An individual with a medical condition is safer if the frontal air bag is turned off. A written statement from a physician must accompany each request based on a medical condition unless the request is based on a medical condition for which the National Conference on Medical Indications for Air Bag Deactivation recommends deactivation. (For driver and/or passenger frontal air bag as appropriate.)
  4. A driver must sit within a few inches of the air bag, typically because she or he is of extremely small stature (i.e., 4 feet 6 inches or less). (For the driver frontal air bag only.)

In those instances where an ON-OFF switch is not made for a particular vehicle, NHTSA will consider allowing an air bag to be deactivated. The approval process for deactivation is more rigorous because, while an ON-OFF switch allows the driver or passenger frontal air bag to be turned on and off in appropriate circumstances, deactivation is not so flexible. Once deactivated, an air bag cannot be easily activated for those drivers or passengers who may need it.

ON-OFF Switch/Deactivation

Only authorized dealers and repair shops can install ON-OFF switches and can do so only with an authorization letter from NHTSA. If you are interested in having an air bag ON-OFF switch installed in a vehicle you own or lease (check with the leasing company first to see if installing an ON-OFF switch would violate the terms of your lease), you will need to:

  • Read the brochure, Air Bags & On-Off Switches: Information for an Informed Decision (PDF, 648.74 KB) or request a copy by mail.
  • Download the Request for Air Bag On-Off Switch form (PDF, 529.13 KB) or request a copy by mail.
  • Before filling out the form, ensure you have read the brochure carefully: you may decide that an ON-OFF switch is not appropriate for you.
  • If you decide to request an ON-OFF switch, you will need to certify on the request form that you have read the brochure and that you (or other drivers/passengers of your vehicle) fall into one or more of the high-risk groups for the air bag(s) for which you request a switch.
  • Fill out and submit the request form to NHTSA at the following address:
    • National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
      Attention: Air Bag Switch Requests
      1200 New Jersey Avenue SE.
      Washington, DC 20590-1000
  • For a faster response, write your phone number on the form and fax it to: 202-493-2833 or 202-366-6916. For questions, call the Air Bag Division at 202-366-6982.
  • If the form is properly and completely filled out, NHTSA will review the document and, if approved, will send you an authorization letter that you can take to your dealer or repair shop.
  • Check with your auto dealer or repair shop to see if an ON-OFF switch is available for your vehicle and how much the switch will cost. If a switch is available and the dealer or repair shop is willing to install it, give the authorization letter directly to the dealer or repair business. After the dealer or repair shop installs the ON-OFF switch, they will return a form along with the authorization letter to NHTSA, indicating the work has been done for you.
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The activation of an air bag in a crash is dependent on several important factors including: the characteristics of the crash (e.g., speed, other vehicles involved, impact direction); the individual vehicle air bag system's design strategy; and the crash sensor locations. Air bags are not intended to deploy in all crashes. There may be circumstances when an air bag does not deploy. Some possible examples follow:

  • The crash conditions may be sufficiently moderate where an air bag would not be needed to protect an occupant wearing a seat belt. The seat belt may provide sufficient protection from a head or chest injury in such a crash.
  • Many advanced frontal air bag systems automatically turn off the passenger air bag when the vehicle detects a small-stature passenger or child, a child in a child restraint system, or no occupant in the right front passenger seat.
  • Some advanced side air bag systems will similarly shut off the passenger side air bag system when detecting a small-stature passenger or child in the right front passenger seat who is positioned too close to the side air bag.
  • In used vehicles, a possible reason for the air bag not to deploy is that the air bag may not have been replaced after a previous crash. NHTSA recommends that air bags always be replaced after a deployment. Any air bag that fails to deploy in an injury-producing crash should be reported to NHTSA's Office of Defects Investigation for investigation of possible system defects and potential recall.

Frontal air bags are generally designed to deploy in "moderate to severe" frontal or near-frontal crashes, which are defined as crashes that are equivalent to hitting a solid, fixed barrier at 8 to 14 mph or higher. (This would be equivalent to striking a parked car of similar size at about 16 to 28 mph or higher.)

No. Placing a child in the front seat, no matter what the circumstances, comes with increased risk. NHTSA recommends that children under 13 years old ride in the back seat in the appropriate child restraint systems for their age and size: rear-facing car seats, forward-facing car seats, booster seats, or adult seat belts. For information on tweens, see our Seat Belts section.

The proper operation of some advanced frontal air bag systems is highly dependent on the pressure (also known as "loading") placed on the seat bottom by the driver or passenger. Situations that add or subtract sensed weight can result in an occupant misclassification. If the indicator light does not provide the expected result, consult your owner’s manual to find out how to correct the problem.

No. Once deployed, an air bag – whether advanced frontal or another type – cannot be re-used and must be replaced by an authorized service technician without delay.

Yes. All light vehicles (passenger cars and light-duty trucks) must meet specific safety performance criteria for dummies representing 12-month-old infants, 3-year-old toddlers, 6-year-old children, and small-stature women.

For those manufacturers electing to suppress (not deploy) an air bag for an infant or child in all crashes, the occupant-sensing devices in their advanced frontal air bag systems have been tested with child-sized dummies, representing an infant in a child safety seat and small children in and out of child safety seats, to ensure that the air bag will turn itself off.

Yes. To minimize the potential of any air-bag-related injury, NHTSA still recommends keeping a 10-inch minimum between the air bag cover (in the center of the steering wheel for drivers and on the dashboard for the right front passenger), maintaining a proper seating position, and moving the seat as far back as possible (drivers should be able to comfortably reach the pedals).

Frontal air bags have come a long way since they first appeared in the 1980s. Although those older air bags saved thousands of lives, they deployed the same way for every driver and passenger, causing injury and in some rare cases even death to children, small adults, and any unbelted occupants positioned too close to the air bag as it deployed. Today's advanced frontal air bags are better able to protect drivers and front seat passengers by using sophisticated sensing systems to determine whether, when and how much to deploy.

While rare, NHTSA has identified fake air bags in vehicles where an air bag has been replaced, for example after a crash. These fake air bags may have been sold online to consumers or repair shops. If your vehicle is equipped with a counterfeit air bag, there is cause for concern. Counterfeit air bags have been shown to consistently malfunction in ways that range from non-deployment to the expulsion of metal shrapnel during deployment.

NHTSA urges used car buyers and owners to be aware of cheap, substandard replacement air bag inflators that can cause death or serious injury in a crash. In 2024, NHTSA issued a consumer alert after at least three people were killed and two people suffered life-altering, disfiguring injuries due to faulty aftermarket replacement air bag inflators. 

If consumers own or are considering the purchase of a used vehicle, NHTSA urges them to learn their vehicle’s history and ensure their vehicle has genuine air bag inflators. If their vehicle has inadequate replacement parts, it could kill or critically injure them in a crash. Additionally, these inflators may deploy partially or too slowly, failing to protect an occupant’s head from striking the steering wheel or dashboard. 

This warning does not affect owners of new vehicles or those who already know the full and complete history of their used vehicles.

NHTSA In Action

NHTSA is dedicated to promoting the safe use of vehicle equipment

NHTSA demonstrates its commitment to the safe use and manufacture of air bags by:

  • Providing consumers information about air bags and how they work
  • Testing and providing guidance on the risks of counterfeit and defective air bags
  • Overseeing the compliance of automakers and suppliers with safety standards and safety recall requirements for defects and non-compliances
  • Informing the public about safety defects and recalls
  • Urging vehicle owners with recalled air bags to immediately get their air bags replaced by a dealer

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