Protecting yourself and your family from airbag injuries
Airbags detonate with more than 1200 lbs of force at speeds that can exceed 230 mph. Knowing how to protect yourself and your passengers can help you prevent unnecessary injuries or even deaths. Currently, NHTSA has given the car companies until 2012 to provide these "Advanced Airbags", but no manufacturer has yet claimed to have developed an airbag system that meets the new criteria. Until "safe" airbags are developed and installed and proven, you need to protect yourself.
NHTSA's new criteria for "advanced air bags" will require manufacturers to make supplemental restraint systems and airbags that are safe for children and women as well as for the standard sized male. These supplemental restraint and airbag systems will be developed to meet the final implementation deadline of 2012. So far, the airbag systems developed over the last few years have made progress, with multistage airbags and occupant eight and position sensors. In September 2003 the first systems were be introduced by GM and others which turn off the airbag based on both occupant weight and position. But there is still a long way to go before the dynamic airbag test requirements are met and the systems are safe for children and shorter women and those with medical conditions.
Airbag systems were developed for the 5 ft 8 inch 180 lb. male, and only tested to be sure they met their needs. Unfortunately, this did not help shorter people, who have to sit closer to the steering wheel than 10 or 12 inches. Nor did the requirements consider children, or those who have medical reasons why they are in danger from the force of an exploding airbag.
The danger to those in these categories is well understood by NHTSA, and they will give permission for an airbag switch once someone fills out a form stating that they meet the criteria (or that they will meet the criteria when they have someone in one of these endangered groups will ride in their car).
Once safe airbags are developed and produced, NHTSA will probably no longer give permission for airbag switches in those cars.
New medical findings are now available that illustrate the danger of airbag injury to all people. Injuries are far more prevalent than deaths, but the data is difficult to evaluate because accidents and injuries are voluntarily reported to the National Automotive Sampling System and include information not investigated and verified. But these are the best information available. Injuries are not recognized as an issue or tracked by NHTSA.
The number of airbag induced deaths reported by NHTSA only has included accidents investigated by NHTSA's Special Crash Investigation (SCI) Division. As of 1988, the SCI decided to focus only on investigating accidents that included the latest airbag technology, because their primary purpose is to help auto manufacturers develop safer and better airbags. But whenever statistics on airbag induced deaths are quoted, those numbers are used as if the SCI investigated deaths are the only deaths from airbags. But the bulk of the deaths are not investigated because they don't involve the latest technology. Therefore there are far more deaths than are quoted in the official statistics published by NHTSA. This holds true with injuries as well: very few are ever investigated or counted.
Dr Maria-Segui Gomez, leading airbag researcher, reported that for female drivers, airbags create a net protective effect only when a vehicle's speed exceeds 52 to 62 Kmh ( 32 to 38 mph). Ms Gomez published this study in the American Journal of Public Health on October 2000, and she also stated that these speeds may be conservative (i.e. may be higher) because of limitations in the data. At lower speeds, the potential for injury from airbags outweighs the benefits. This included all female drivers, not just the shorter ones defined in NHTSA's endangered group.
Emergency Medical personnel and police officers who are on the scene of accidents regularly see the results of airbag induced injuries and know the danger. Hospital emergency room physicians are well aware of the danger and deal with airbag-induced injuries regularly. Research by Dr. Wm Smock, MD (Professor at the Dept of Emergency Medicine and Director of Clinical Forensic Medicine, University of Louisville Hospital, and Police Surgeon) reports on his experience with severe injuries from airbags and airbag module covers to the hands, arms and heads of drivers and passengers. Dr. Smock's article is summarized by Margaret Brown, an airbag injury victim, and the technical article itself is also available.
But what about between now and 2012 when "advanced Airbags" are produced? And what about all the vehicles produced before 2012?
There are steps you need to take to help reduce risk. These fall into two categories: adopting new driving habits, which applies to everyone, or modifying your vehicle so you can control your airbags.