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Statistics and Controversy About Airbags

Mar 3, 2003 |

More than 120 million vehicles now feature airbags, and another 1 million new vehicles with airbags are sold each month, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a division of the Department of Transportation, states that the combination of seat belts and airbags is 81 percent effective in preventing serious head injury and 66 percent effective in preventing serious chest injury.

That means 81 of every 100 people who would have suffered a serious head injury, and 66 of every 100 people who would have suffered chest injury in a crash, were spared that fate because they wore seat belts and were in vehicles equipped with airbags.

As of January 2003, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that there have been 10,271 lives saved due to airbags. NHTSA reports that since 1990, airbag deployment has killed 227 people in low-severity crashes, including 76 drivers, 10 adult passengers, 119 children between the ages of 1 and 11, and 22 infants. Of the 76 adult drivers killed, 28 were women under 5 feet 2 inches tall, and 4 of the 10 adult passengers killed were females smaller than that height.

Depowered, or second-generation, airbags were introduced in 1998 when Ford featured them on the Lincoln Navigator. They deploy with much less force, which is intended to minimize the risk of injury during low-speed collisions. Federal law now also permits the installation of a switch for deactivating front airbags.

Airbags cause far more incidental injuries and broken bones than fatalities, but NHTSA does not track these. Those who tend to be at greater risk for these incidental injuries include small children in the front seat, infants in rear-facing safety seats in the front seat and motorists who must sit within 10 inches of the steering wheel — often short, young, female drivers. Pregnant women and people with medical problems such as bone mass loss (osteoporosis) often sustain more injuries than drivers without these medical conditions.

Motorists who wear eyeglasses or sunglasses increase the risk of injury, but the American Academy of Ophthalmology suggests that drivers and passengers face other, more serious dangers by not using the proper eyewear. Even monocular people who have vision in just one eye are encouraged to keep the airbag connected.

Drivers who grip the steering wheel in the traditional 10 o’clock and 2 o’clock positions risk having their arms broken by a deploying airbag. Instructors now promote 9 o’clock and 3 o’clock hand positions as a precaution. While some drivers like to hold the steering wheel with one hand at the 12 o’clock position, a deploying airbag not only will make the motorist punch himself in the face, but it will severely fracture that arm. Imagine what may happen to someone smoking a pipe or eating a lollipop.

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