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Front air bag nondeployments in frontal crashes fatal to drivers or right-front passengers

Braver, Elisa R.; McCartt, Anne T.; Sherwood, Christopher P.; Zuby, David S.; Blanar, Laura; Scerbo, Marge
Traffic Injury Prevention (TIP)
March 2010

Objective: Public concern has arisen about the reliability of front air bags because Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data indicate many nondeployed air bags in fatal frontal crashes. However, the accuracy of air bag deployment, the variable in question, is uncertain. This study aimed to provide more certain estimates of nondeployment incidence in fatal frontal crashes.
Methods: Fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers and right-front passengers in frontal crashes were identified in two U.S. databases for calendar years 1998-2006 and model years 1994-2006: FARS, a census of police-reported fatal crashes on public roads, and National Automotive Sampling System/Crashworthiness Data System (NASS/CDS), a probability sample of tow-away crashes. NASS/CDS contains subsets of fatal crashes in FARS and collects detailed data using crash investigators. Front air bag deployment coding for front-seat occupant fatalities was compared in FARS and NASS/CDS, and case reviews were conducted.
Results: Among FARS frontal deaths with available deployment status (N = 43,169), front air bags were coded as not deployed for 18 percent of front occupants. In comparison, NASS/CDS (N = 628) reported 9 percent (weighted estimate) nondeployment among front occupants killed. Among crashes common to both databases, NASS/CDS reported deployments for 45 percent of front occupant deaths for which FARS had coded nondeployments. Detailed case reviews of NASS/CDS crashes indicated highly accurate coding for deployment status. Based on this case review, 8 percent (weighted estimate) of front occupant deaths in frontal crashes appeared to involve air bag nondeployments; 1-2 percent of front occupant deaths represented potential system failures where deployments would have been expected. Air bag deployments appeared unwarranted in most nondeployments based on crash characteristics.
Discussion: FARS data overstate the magnitude of the problem of air bag deployment failures; steps should be taken to improve coding. There are inherent uncertainties in judgments about whether or not air bags would be expected to deploy in some crashes. Continued monitoring of air bag performance is warranted.