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Air Bag Injuries Plentiful, Studies Show

Mar 19, 1997 | Knight-Ridder Newspapers

Anyone looking for reassurance that air bags
are good for you won't find much in injury studies recounted this week at the Society of Automotive Engineers Congress in Detroit.

Heads nearly torn from necks. Brain trauma. Multiple rib fractures. Facial abrasions. Eyelid, shoulder and breast bruises.

One man wearing glasses ended up with a piece of the plastic frame embedded in his eye.

While engineers defended air bags as a great technology that has saved many lives more than 1,700 by the federal government's count their research studies painted a grim picture of air bag-induced injuries.

Since 1990, there have been 38 child and 23 adult deaths attributed to air bags. No one can say for certain how many people have been injured by air bags, because no one is counting, and injuries have received less attention than the deaths.

Automotive researchers agree that air bag-related injuries will rise dramatically in the next few years. By one estimate, there will be more than 200,000 air bag-related injuries by the year 2000.

``Air bag injuries are still very rare, but we're going to see a heck of a lot more before long,'' said Donald Huelke, a research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute, who discussed his research paper at SAE.

Most common may be injuries to faces, arms and necks, said Huelke, a professor of anatomy who has been studying air bag injuries for more than two decades. Almost 40 percent of 540 drivers hit by air bags in his study suffered arm injuries.

Less common were facial injuries, which occurred in one-third of the 540 air bag deployments. Almost all of those were minor injuries. Facial fractures are ``extremely rare,'' said Huelke.

``But eye injuries pale next to people who are having their heads nearly separated from their necks,'' Huelke said.

In a study last year, Huelke found nine women, all shorter than
5-foot-4 whose heads were almost torn from their necks when air bags deployed.

Just as frightening may be a sharp upchuck in heart injuries for frail or elderly adults in minor crashes, said Jeffrey Augenstein, a University of Miami trauma surgeon studying air bag injuries.

His study of 1,253 air bag deployments found 56 fatalities, 25 percent of which were from severe heart injuries. The majority of those deaths more than 64 percent were in low-speed crashes
slower than 20 mph.

``It's a major concern. Heart injuries will increase if we're not careful because of the large number of elderly who will be exposed
to air bags,'' Augenstein said.

A plan by automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to take some of the deadly punch out of air bags should help, said Kennerly Digges, a researcher at George Washington University.

A 25 percent reduction in the bag's deployment force could reduce the risk of severe chest injury by the same amount, he said. ``We're moving in the right direction,'' he said.

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