Five-year-old Max Kushner doesn't even want to ride in the front seat of a car anymore.
"If you explain to kids, logically, that they're a lot safer buckled in the back, they understand," says his mom, Pam Kushner, a Long Beach, Calif., family physician and a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Kushner is a spokeswoman for the Academy of Family Physicians on the subject of children and auto safety.
By now every parent in America should have gotten the message from news reports that air bags, while effective in saving adult lives -- 500 just last year -- can prove lethal to children in the front seat during even a minor accident.
This Thanksgiving, at least 30 million Americans will be on the road, according to the American Automobile Association. Many will be renting cars that have passenger-side air bags. Most rentals do. More will be riding in some of the millions of dual-air-bag-equipped cars and vans owned by friends and relatives.
"The problem is when you're in a strange automobile, you get out of your normal routine and let down your guard," AAA safety expert Michael Morrissey says.
"That's especially the case during long car rides on crowded highways with fidgety children who complain they're uncomfortable in their safety seats and seat belts," he says. "The temptation is to give in. Don't."
Air-bag safety means: Buckle everyone. Children in the back seat. (For a brochure and a windshield sticker about air-bag safety, write to the American Car Rental Association's ABC Program, P.O. Box 4361, Lisle, Ill. 60532.)
Air bags are not soft, billowy pillows -- they blast out of the dashboard at up to 200 miles an hour. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that, as a result, 30 children riding in a front seat have been killed. Some were wearing safety belts. Nine infants were killed strapped in their rear-facing baby seats.
The bottom line: No matter how much they bicker or beg to ride in front, keep those under 12 in the back. Never buckle more than one child in one seat belt.
If there isn't enough room in the back, the National Safe Kids Campaign, the first nationwide childhood-injury-prevention program, suggests:
Put the largest child in the front passenger seat, never an infant in a rear-facing safety seat.
Ensure that children are properly buckled with the shoulder belt and the lap belt. (Don't allow them to put the shoulder belt behind them or under their arms.)
Move the seat as far back from the dashboard as possible.
Don't let them wiggle out of the shoulder belts or loosen the lap belts so they can lie down across the back seat. Invest in a booster seat for kids between 40 to 60 pounds to correctly position the seat belt to protect them.
(To answer questions about correct seat-belt use, safety seats and air bags, call the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's auto safety hot line at  424-9393.)