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IIHS News | January 9, 1997Subscribe

Negative publicity about airbags obscuring their benefit; Institute advises against disconnecting airbags except in rare cases

ARLINGTON, Va — Institute President Brian O'Neill today showed photos from recent crash tests to illustrate airbag benefits and told the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that motorists should consider disconnecting airbags "only in extremely rare circumstances." The following are highlights from O'Neill's comments:

"About 42 million cars on U.S. roads now have driver airbags, and 24 million of these have airbags for passengers, too. There is no question that these airbags are saving lives and preventing injuries. Driver airbags reduce deaths by about 14 percent in all kinds of crashes and about 20 percent in frontal crashes alone. Passenger airbags are reducing deaths among people in right front seats by 11 percent in all kinds of crashes and 18 percent in frontal impacts.

"However, airbags are not without problems. There have been 54 deaths from inflating airbags. These include 19 adult drivers, 25 children, 9 infants, and 1 other passenger. Most troubling is the fatality risk among children riding in front seats — a risk that is higher in vehicles with airbags than without them. A recent Insurance Institute for Highway Safety study found that deaths in frontal crashes among children younger than 10 were about 33 percent higher in cars with passenger airbags than in cars without them.

"Serious airbag inflation injuries occur primarily because of occupants' positions when the bags begin to inflate — not because of people's sizes. Anyone on top of, or very close to, an airbag when it begins to inflate is at risk of serious inflation injury. This means mainly unbelted people who may be thrown out of position by events — for example, emergency braking or jumping a curb — before the impacts that cause the airbags to deploy. Passengers, especially children, who are unbelted or improperly belted are especially susceptible to uncontrolled movement during maneuvers or events before crashes. And short drivers who sit very close to the steering wheel are likely to be on top of their airbags as they begin to deploy in crashes.

Previa with airbag photoPrevia without airbag photo

40 mph offset test: Passenger van with (above left) and without (right) airbag. Driver seat positioned midway between most forward and back positions. Dummy in driver seat represents average-size male.

"The risk of serious inflation injury to people positioned correctly and using their safety belts is extremely small, while the potential benefits from airbags in serious crashes are large. To illustrate how airbags protect people's heads and faces, the Institute recently conducted a pair of 40 mph frontal offset crash tests involving passenger vans, one with the driver airbag connected and the other with it disconnected. In the test with the intact airbag, the head injury criterion — a standard measure of serious injury risk — indicated little or no risk of serious head injury. In contrast, the driver dummy in the same passenger van with the airbag disconnected sustained a HIC of 4,651, a level at which fatal head injury is almost certain." (Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208, which specifies minimum performance requirements for airbags, requires HICs less than 1,000 in 30 mph flat-barrier tests.)

Despite clear evidence of airbag benefits, the growing public concern about inflation injuries has led NHTSA to propose allowing airbags to be disconnected. Assuming this proposal becomes government policy, O'Neill noted that "the issue becomes who should consider getting their airbags disconnected.

"Even short women who, prompted by recent media coverage, are increasingly afraid of their airbags should look carefully at potential benefits in relation to the potential risks before deciding to get their airbags disconnected. Short drivers who sit with their faces or chests close to the steering wheel are at risk with or without airbag — at risk of an inflation injury with an airbag and, without one, at risk of serious injury from hitting the steering wheel in moderate and serious crashes. Drivers of short stature can reduce their risk of inflation injury without throwing away the benefits they would get from their airbags in serious crashes. First, they should always use their safety belts. Second, they should move as far away from the steering wheel as possible while still reaching the pedals. Most short drivers can get far enough away from the wheel — 10 to 12 inches is enough — and still reach the pedals. If not, they should consider pedal extenders.

Lincoln with airbag photoLincoln without airbag photo

35 mph flat-barrier test: Passenger car with (above left) and without (right) airbag. Driver seat positioned forward. Dummy in driver seat represents short (5 feet) female

"The potential benefits of airbags for short drivers are illustrated by another pair of Institute tests. Two 35 mph flat-barrier crash tests were conducted with 5th percentile female dummies in the driver seats, which were moved nearly all the way forward. One car was equipped with an airbag, which effectively protected the small dummy. In the other car, the airbag was disconnected, and the dummy's face hit the steering wheel rim hard enough to bend it severely even though the dummy was belted.

"Only in extremely rare circumstances when there is no practical way to get back from the wheel should driver airbag disconnection be considered. On the passenger side, there is no significant airbag injury risk for properly belted adults, and the risk for infants and children can be eliminated by ensuring they ride properly restrained in the back seat. The back is safer anyway. Rear-facing infant restraints should never be put in front of an airbag. Even though older children are better off in the back seat, there is no significant risk in front if the seat is all the way back and the child is properly belted and sitting back in the seat. But leaning forward to fiddle with radio dials, for example, can put even belted children at risk.

"So should parents ever consider disconnecting a passenger airbag? Rarely — for example, when infants have medical problems that demand frequent observation and the driver is the only adult in the car. A baby then would need to ride in front and, if there is a passenger airbag, there is a risk. At the same time, parents should realize that paying attention to an infant is a distraction from driving and involves its own risks. A baby who needs watching is precisely the circumstance for which the airbag disconnect option has been proposed. Another such circumstance could be adults who frequently transport too many infants and/or small children to put them all in back and who are concerned about keeping the front-seat passenger back away from the airbag. Only in such relatively rare cases does it make sense to disconnect a passenger airbag.

"The decision about disconnection should be made with more rationality than passion. This does not mean discounting airbag risks. We must get beyond the panic about inflation injuries and deaths and figure out whether it really makes sense to disconnect airbags on a large scale. And the clear answer is that it does not."

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