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Airbag Hazards: Pro and Con

Airbag Hazards No Match for Life-saving Abilities

Although airbags do pose a slight risk to drivers and passengers, the number of lives saved far outweighs the few deaths and injuries caused by improper deployment

By Sandy Compton

According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, 94 million cars and light trucks have driver air bags, and 66 million have passenger air bags. Beginning with model year 1998, all new passenger cars were required to have driver and passenger airbags. Light trucks were subject to the same requirement beginning with the 1999 model year.

Since airbags were mandated in cars in 1991, there have been more than 3.3 million air bag deployments, 4,800 lives saved and countless injuries prevented. Nonetheless, they have gained a dubious reputation, not because they have been ineffective in saving lives, but because in the decade since 1990, 148 people, 62 adults and 86 children, have been killed by airbags.

Of the children killed, all died of head and/or neck injuries. 18 were infants riding in rear-facing child safety seats in a front seat. Most of the other children were found to have been either completely unrestrained or wearing only lap belts. Most of the adult drivers and passengers killed during an air bag deployment were also unrestrained. Of 14 drivers killed by airbags who were wearing seatbelts, the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration's (NHTSA) investigations found that five of these drivers were small-stature females who were seated too close to the steering wheel, where the driver side airbag is housed.

Nearly all of these deaths could have been prevented by following the simple safety precaution of having adult drivers and passengers wearing their seatbelt/shoulder harness, and by placing all children under 12, whether they are in a car seat or not, in the back seat and restraining them with properly adjusted safety belts.

Airbags are designed to minimize head and upper torso injuries by deploying quickly in a collision to cushion a vehicle’s occupants from the hard interior surfaces of the vehicle. They inflate in 1/25th of a second at about 200 miles per hour, which is why children, smaller people and people too close to them at deployment can be killed or injured.

These problems with airbags have moved agencies and manufacturers to make them safer. In 1997, NHTSA allowed automakers to reduce the power of air bags by 20 to 35 percent, and reduced-power air bags are included in almost all model year 2000 vehicles. In addition, some air bag systems can detect the presence of small children or adults too close to an airbag, and turn off the airbag for as long as necessary. Other systems can modify how the airbag works for different size occupants and levels of crash severity.

Pickups and sports cars without rear seats, or with small rear seats, can now have a passenger-side, on-off switch as standard equipment. In addition, drivers and passengers fitting certain risk profiles can get authorization from NHTSA to have an on-off switch installed by a dealer or repair facility if a switch is available for the vehicle they own.

Regardless of the hazards present in certain cases, airbags work. It may be the seatbelt that saves the life, but it is the airbag that prevents the head, face and chest injuries that even a seatbelt cannot prevent. In extreme impact crashes, it is the airbag that keeps the seatbelt from cutting into the body of the occupant.

The following set of precautions will help assure that the airbag in your car will do what it is designed to do: save your life and protect your body from injury.

  • Airbags are designed as a supplemental restraint system; put on your seat belt and shoulder harness.
  • The risk zone for driver airbags is the first 2-3inches of inflation; keep 10 inches or more between your breastbone and the air bag
  • Never place a rear-facing infant seat in front of an air bag, even a reduced-power air bag, unless the air bag on-off switch is in the OFF position. Not all vehicles are equipped with a driver-controllable switch for the passenger-side airbag, so don’t put a child up front unless you are certain your vehicle has the switch and that it is turned off.
  • Place children 12 years and under in the back seat and make sure they are properly restrained, either in a seatbelt or a child safety seat or booster appropriate for their size and weight.