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Status Report, Vol. 37, No. 4 | April 6, 2002 Subscribe

Airbag risk is reduced in newest vehicles

Ever since it became clear in the mid-1990s that inflating airbags were causing some deaths and serious injuries, efforts have been aimed at reducing the problem. New information from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) indicates the efforts are paying off in declining numbers of deaths investigated by NHTSA and attributed to inflating airbags.

The worst years were 1997, when 56 deaths occurred, and 1998 with another 47 deaths. In contrast, 8 deaths were attributed to airbags last year, even as more cars on the road were equipped with airbags. (Tolls include deaths confirmed by NHTSA to have been caused by inflating airbags plus deaths under investigation. Most such cases eventually are confirmed as airbag deaths). Deaths have declined in all occupant groups.

"The problem is on the wane, and there's no mistaking why. A major effort to educate drivers about airbag risks plus a variety of airbag design changes have made a difference," says Susan Ferguson, Institute senior vice president for research.

A concern in earlier years involved drivers sitting very close to their steering wheels and, therefore, close to an airbag as it begins to inflate. In 1997-98, a total of 9 female drivers 5-foot-2 inches or shorter died from airbag injuries. Only 2 such deaths occurred in 2000 (another female driver death, as yet unconfirmed, apparently occurred in 2001, but information isn't available about her height).

Kids in the back

A majority of deaths from inflating airbags have been infants in rear-facing restraints positioned in front of passenger airbags or children riding either unrestrained or improperly restrained so they were out of position (too close to airbags) during the first stages of inflation. Once this problem was identified in the mid-1990s, a push began to advise of the importance of putting kids, properly restrained, in rear seats, away from the risks. "The rear is safer anyway," Ferguson points out.

The national effort has included not only educating motorists but also amending child restraint laws. Delaware, Louisiana, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, Rhode Island, South Carolina, and Washington have changed their laws to require children to ride in the back seats of vehicles if available.

Airbag design changes

Another approach involves the airbags themselves. Beginning with 1998 models, NHTSA changed the rules for compliance testing so manufacturers could install airbags with less power (but still enough to protect people in serious crashes). Since then improvements beyond depowering have been introduced (see "Hold on unbelted barrier test may be extended, different size dummies used," Nov. 29, 1997, and "Advanced airbags are the focus of new NHTSA rulemaking," Oct. 10, 1998).

The design changes are beneficial. Among the 202 deaths NHTSA has confirmed since the mid-1990s, three-quarters have occurred in 1994-97 models. Only 11 have occurred in 1998 and newer models. Eight of the 11 were children, and 7 of the 8 were unrestrained.

What happens when older cars with the more powerful airbags are bought by new owners who don't know about the risks? Will deaths in these cars go up? So far there's no evidence of this. A substantial proportion of the 1994 models still on the road, for example, presumably aren't being driven by original owners. Yet only 2 airbag deaths occurred in these vehicles in 2000 versus 12 in 1997.

Deaths caused by inflating airbags, 1990-2001

Airbag deaths graph

Deaths attributed to inflating airbags have declined in all occupant groups. Infant deaths declined from 9 in 1997-98 to 1 in 2000-01. During the same years, child deaths declined from 54 to 15. Seven driver deaths occurred in 2000-01, down from 32 in 1997-98, and deaths of adult passengers decreased from 8 to 2. A total of 8 airbag deaths occurred last year, so the problem isn't solved. But with education and airbag redesign, this isn't nearly as big a problem as it used to be. Note: number of deaths include confirmed airbag inflation deaths plus deaths for which the cause still is under investigation.

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