Feature Article  


Airbags:  Are You Aware of the Risks?

There is no question that airbags have saved lives.  Likewise, there is no question that airbags have killed.  The real question lies in what could have been done and what can be done to minimize the dangers of airbags.   


The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has estimated that as of October 1, 1999, 4,758 persons have been saved as a result of airbags; however, they have also confirmed that airbags are responsible for the deaths of at least 146 persons.  Of those deaths, 84 were children, 18 of which were in rear-facing child safety seats.  Of the remainder, 56 were adult drivers while 6 were adult passengers.

It is further estimated that as of October 1, 1999, 3.8 million airbags have been deployed.  It is estimated that 57 million cars and 32 million light trucks are currently equipped with airbags.

About airbags 
Airbags have been around for sometime.  They were first patented back in the 1950's, and some were even installed in the early 1970's.

Airbags are designed for frontal impact crashes, which are responsible for more than half of all passenger vehicle occupant deaths.  Airbags inflate when sensors detect a crash and send an electrical pulse to the airbag module, igniting a propellant called "sodium azide."  As the propellant rapidly burns, it releases nitrogen gas into the bag which is folded inside a compartment of the vehicle.  As the bag inflates, it bursts through its covering and into the passenger compartment at rates of up to 200 miles per hour.  All this takes place in less than 1/25th of a second -- faster than the blink of an eye.   

The risks 
The force of the airbag is greatest in the first 2-3 inches after the airbag bursts through the cover.  During pre-crash breaking, one may be thrown toward the dashboard area, in immediate proximity to the airbag.  The impact from the airbag can cause serious and permanent injuries or even death from spinal chord, brain, or other injuries.  The risk is greatest for children and smaller adults.  Typical injuries can include neck hyperextension, spinal chord injuries, blindness, facial abrasions, lacerations, blunt trauma, chest injuries, internal trauma, and burns. 

How airbags can be made safer 
Many believe that alternative designs can minimize the dangers of airbags.  These various alternative designs range from inexpensive "tethers"  (costing about $3.00 per bag) which would restrain the bag from moving to far rearward to "tailored inflators" which would tailor the flow the gas into the bag according to the severity of the collision.  In March 1997, NHTSA temporarily amended safety standard 208 to encourage the development of "depowered" airbags.  In October 1999, NHTSA also issued a warning about side-impact airbags.  These airbags are intended to protect occupants during a side impact crash.  NHTSA noted that these airbags may have been under tested and issued the following statement: 

"Side-impact airbags can provide significant supplemental safety benefits to adults in side impact crashes.  However, children who are seated in close proximity to a side airbag may be at risk of serious or fatal injury, especially if the child's head, neck, or chest is in close proximity to the air bag at the time of deployment.  Because there are variations in design and performance of side airbags, manufacturers should notify consumers regarding whether it is safe for children to sit next to the side airbags.  Children 12 and under should always travel in the rear seat and use an age appropriate restraint."  (Consumer Advisory from National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, NITSA Issues Consumer Advisory on Side Airbags and Child Safety - October 14, 1999.)

What can be done to minimize the risk? 
  1. Children should ride in the backseat. Infants should never ride in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger airbag.  Children, typically ages 12 and under, also should ride buckled up in the backseat.
  2. Child safety seats. Young children and infants always should ride in age and size appropriate child safety seats.  The safety seat should be held properly in place by the vehicle's safety belts and the child should be correctly buckled in the child safety seat.  A child who has outgrown a convertible child safety seat will need to ride in a booster seat for the vehicle's safety belts to fit properly.
  3. Wear both lap and shoulder belts.  The shoulder strap should cross the collar bone, and lap belt should fit low and tight.  The shoulder strap should never be slipped behind the back or under the arm - this is a dangerous habit, especially in cars with airbags. 
  4. Move the front seats back.  The driver should never sit closer than 10 inches from the center of the steering wheel to the breast bone.  Driver and front passenger seats should be moved as far back as possible, particularly for shorter statured people. 







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