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.
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 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
Many believe that alternative designs
can minimize the dangers of airbags.
These various alternative designs range from inexpensive
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
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.)
can be done to minimize the risk?
- 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
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
- 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.
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.