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Airbags – A lifesaving tool that can kill


April 23, 2013

Did you know that, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), an estimated 238 people were killed by the airbags in their cars between 1990 and 2002, and thousands others claim injuries from these devices? At first glance, these statistics are both shocking and scary. If you were to wonder whether or not airbags are the life-saving tool we have all believed them to be, you would not be alone.  After all, airbags were designed specifically to save lives and protect us in dangerous car crashes, not be the reason we are hurt or killed in collisions.


However, there is a lot of reason to be optimistic and a lot to learn from the NHTSA studies on airbag deployments. The vast studies conducted on vehicle airbags have proven that while injury and death can be caused by airbags, the likelihood is very low. In fact, airbags are credited with saving nearly 20,000 lives in the United States during roughly the same time frame in which those 238 lives were lost.  Like any tool, proper use is absolutely critical to ensure the best results.


Studies have shown that improper usage of seatbelts is the largest contributing factor to airbag related injuries and deaths. Proper use of seatbelts (lap and shoulder) is essential, as well as proper placement of children in the car. 


As I teach in class to my students, airbags are not a soft pillow-like device that gently pops out to stop you from hitting the dashboard in a collision. Airbags rapidly deploy within a fraction of a second, and can reach speeds between 140mph and 200mph. Even a soft fabric at that speed can shatter cheek bones, break your nose, or dislocate a jaw on an adult. Even worse, if a child is seated in the front seats, the airbag will deploy too high to connect with the body and head properly, which can cause significant injury to the neck and head, or potentially kill the child. This is why we have the passenger restraint laws in Washington which require anyone under the age of 13 years old be in a rear passenger seat position, away from all front-deploying airbags. 


Also, like any piece of technology, airbags do not always function how or when we expect them to. Airbags can deploy at very low-speed collisions, and yet fail to deploy at very high-speed collisions. Airbags rely on many sensors and other measurements to determine if deploying is appropriate, but collisions are violent and unpredictable. This sometimes results in situations where an airbag did not deploy on a collision in which the airbag could have significantly reduced injury or prevented death of a vehicle occupant. Because we cannot control how and when they deploy, it is important for us to just follow some best practices.


So here are a few tips on how to get the most out of your airbags and to make sure that you have given yourself and your passengers the greatest chance at survival in a collision. 


Always wear your lap and shoulder belts, and always wear them properly. Placing the shoulder strap behind your back instead of across your chest is not only illegal, it is highly dangerous.  Also, try to position your seat as far back from the steering wheel and dashboard as is possible and comfortable. Sitting very close to the steering wheel increases the risk of coming into contact with the airbag as it is still deploying, which can increase risk of injury. 


Next, make sure all child passengers sit in the rear seats of the vehicle if possible, as those are the safest seat positions for them. If you absolutely must have a child passenger in the front, move him as far back as you can from the passenger side airbag/dashboard. Some vehicles have the ability to turn off a passenger side airbag, which is a great option if you can always remember to do that for child passengers that are too short, too young, or weigh too little for airbag specifications.


Lastly, remember that there is no greater way to stay safe in our vehicles than to stay aware and scan for hazards, drive safely, and stay out of collisions. Safety tools such as airbags are amazing life-saving tools, but ones we should never hope to rely on.


Thanks for your time, and drive safely out there!


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