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Status Report, Vol. 43, No. 4 | June 9, 2008 Subscribe

Redesigned airbags safeguard both children and grown-ups

Frontal airbags that have been redesigned do a better job than older airbags of protecting the youngest vehicle occupants without increasing injury or death risk for adults. This is the main conclusion of a blue ribbon panel's six-year evaluation of the real-world performance of advanced airbags.

In the mid-1990s inflating airbags were linked to some deaths and serious injuries that occurred in low-speed crashes. These particularly involved unrestrained infants and young children, infants in rear-facing restraints, and small adults sitting near the steering wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) changed the test rules in 1997 so automakers could depower frontal airbags starting with 1998 models and in 2001 issued an advanced airbag rule. A federal appeals court upheld this decision (see "Court upholds NHTSA's decision to test at 25 mph with unbelted dummies," Aug. 1, 2004, and "Occupant deaths from inflating airbags have been all but eliminated," Aug. 6, 2005).

Critics had argued that reducing airbag power would compromise occupant protection, especially for larger people, in crashes that occur at higher speeds, but studies by Institute researchers and others showed this wasn't the case (see "Depowered airbags cut the fatality risk for drivers of most vehicles," March 6, 2004). Occupant deaths from inflating airbags in low-speed crashes plunged as a result of depowering plus a campaign to educat e people about the importance of restraining infants and children in the back seats of vehicles.

After gathering more information on the crash performance of newer airbag designs, the blue ribbon panel of researchers and others confirmed that the redesigns are working as intended. Panel chairman Susan Ferguson told NHTSA there's "an abundance of evidence that infant and child deaths from deploying airbags in low-speed crashes are greatly diminished." She said that, "contrary to predictions, overall fatality risks in frontal crashes have not risen among adult drivers and passengers in vehicles with redesigned airbags."

The panel noted some data suggesting a "somewhat elevated fatality risk among a subset of unbelted drivers" in 1998-99 vehicles with redesigned airbags and "some evidence that the risks of serious chest injury may be higher among unbelted drivers in frontal crashes" in vehicles with redesigned airbags. The panel called for more examination of advanced airbags in newer vehicles.

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