In a rear facing car seat placed in the front seat, an infant's head can be torn off by an air bag deploying because of a simple fender bender. Between their introduction in the late 1980s through November 1, 1997, air bags saved about 2620 people - but they also killed 87 people, including 49 children under 10.
So we should always put children in the back seat, right?
It happens that way somewhere in the United States 15 to 25 times a year, parceled out through the spring, summer and early fall. The season is almost upon us. Two decades ago, this was relatively rare. But in the early 1990s, car-safety experts declared that passenger-side front airbags could kill children, and they recommended that child seats be moved to the back of the car; then, for even more safety for the very young, that the baby seats be pivoted to face the rear. If few foresaw the tragic consequence of the lessened visibility of the child ...
"Death by hyperthermia" is the official designation.
Brochure containing information on air bags and children in the front seat. The risk appears to be almost entirely due to being hit within the first few inches of air bag deployment:
I read that article when it came out - it was heartbreaking. I'm not sure it's really an argument for moving infants to the front seat, though, as much as for putting some kinds of precautions in place so that they aren't left in cars in the first place. I'd like to see these clips or something like them being made standard. The problem is that most people won't pay for features to prevent something that they think can't happen to them because they are too careful for that.
I guess another option would be to put LATCH clips in the front seat, and then connect them to the air bag control so that the air bag is automatically deactivated if there is a child seat in front.
I'm not really saying that children should be put in the front seat - just that the decision isn't as clear cut as popular opinion would have one believe.
Our Odyssey, and I think a lot of recent family oriented cars, have a weight sensor in the front passenger seat that turns off the air bag if the weight in the seat is less than 40 pounds. That would certainly seem to be a step in the right direction. Of course, if the issue is really that air bags can be fatal in the first 1-3 inches, as the NHTSA brochure states, it seems like it ought to be relatively simple to mount the air bags 3 inches below the dash.
Finally, an interesting link on what actually saves lives. Seat belts are in the tens of thousands per year; child restraints are in the hundreds. That makes me wonder whether child car seats are actually a cost effective measure at all.