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Driver mortality in frontal crashes: comparison of newer and older airbag designs

Braver, Elisa R.; Kyrychenko, Sergey Y.; Ferguson, Susan A.
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
February 2005

In 1997, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration amended its requirements for frontal crash performance under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard 208 to temporarily allow 30 mi/h (48 km/h) sled tests with unbelted dummies as an alternative to 30 mi/h head-on rigid-barrier vehicle tests. This change permitted automakers to reduce airbag inflation forces so that they would be less likely to injure occupants who are close to airbags when they first deploy. Most vehicle models were sled-certified starting in model year 1998. Airbag-related deaths have decreased since 1997; however, controversy persists about whether reduced inflation forces might be decreasing protection for some occupants in high-severity frontal crashes. To examine the effects of the regulatory changes, this study computed rate ratios (RR) and 95% confidence intervals (95% CI) for passenger vehicle driver deaths per vehicle registration during 2000–2002 at principal impact points of 12 o'clock for 1998–99 model year vehicles relative to 1997 models. Passenger vehicles included in the study had both driver and passenger front airbags, had the same essential designs during the 1997–1999 model years, and had been sled-certified for drivers throughout model years 1998 and 1999. An adjustment was made for the higher annual mileage of newer vehicles. Findings were that the effect of the regulatory change varied by vehicle type. For cars, sport utility vehicles, and minivans combined, there was an 11 percent decrease in fatality risk in frontal crashes after changing to sled certification (RR = 0.89; 95% CI = 0.82–0.96). Among pickups, however, estimated frontal fatality risk increased 35 percent (RR = 1.35; 95% CI = 1.12–1.62). For a broad range of frontal crashes (11, 12, and 1 o'clock combined), the results indicated a modest net benefit of the regulatory change across all vehicle types and driver characteristics. However, the contrary finding for pickups needs to be researched further.