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We know air bags can kill people; do they actually save anybody?

Dear Cecil:

I just returned from a holiday in the States. While there I rented a 1998 Ford Mustang. There was a notice on the visor to look on the other side. I did and took a picture of the second notice. Am I crazy, or is it logical for a safety device to have a notice that it may kill you? Naturally, at the first opportunity I checked out "air bag" on Yahoo. There are numerous sites, practically all of which relate to disabling the air bags. The funny thing is that while it is possible to get the government's permission to do this, practically no dealer or garage will actually perform the operation. The other funny thing is that although we kill over 40,000 persons a year in vehicle accidents, I couldn't find any mention of how many were saved (or how many were killed) by the air bag.

Guyler Magruder, Singapore

Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

No question, it’d be a bummer to have a safety device that killed more people than it saved. But not to worry. If you buckle your seat belts, sit up straight, and put the kids in the backseat, the air bags will be perfectly safe. Of course, if you did all that, you wouldn’t need air bags in the first place. I’m exaggerating a bit, but there’s no denying that air bags have their catch-22 aspect.

First some numbers. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says that, as of September 1, 1998, air bags have saved 3,448 lives (2,954 drivers, 494 passengers) since they were first installed in quantity in the late 1980s. During the same period 115 people (66 of them children) have been killed by air bags, with another 40 unconfirmed deaths, for a total of 155. So we’re talking 22 lives saved for every one lost. It’s estimated that air bags reduce the risk of dying in a direct frontal collision by 30 percent.

Some of these numbers are a little shaky. The NHTSA doesn’t investigate every accident in which an air bag is deployed. The lives-saved figure was arrived at using a “double-pair comparison study,” which the agency describes as “a mathematical analysis of the real-world fatality experience of vehicles with air bags compared with vehicles without air bags.” In other words, despite its seeming precision, 3,448 is an estimate. What’s more, the number of air-bag deaths may be understated, since it includes only cases of low-speed accidents in which the air bag was clearly at fault.

Though 22:1 is a pretty favorable kill ratio, the fatalities show that airbags aren’t the goof-proof passive safety devices some people thought they’d be. Thirty years ago Ralph Nader argued that people didn’t use seat belts and that a passive system like air bags was the only answer. Even today, with mandatory seat belt laws, only about 69 percent of auto users buckle up. Air bags save a lot of the heedless types. According to the NHTSA, of the 3,448 people saved, 2,483 weren’t wearing seat belts.

But you may argue: I use seat belts, and I insist that everyone in my car use them. Why should I be required to risk air-bag injury just to protect the mopes that can’t be bothered? The NHTSA’s answer is that air bags and seat belts combined offer more crash protection than either device individually. Of the 3,448 people saved, 965 were wearing seat belts. Most of the people killed by air bags fall into identifiable risk groups — kids in the front seat, for example. The NHTSA concedes that air bags make the front seat significantly more dangerous for those under 12. But if you’re careful and put the kids in the back, etc., you can minimize the danger.

Some people do everything right and still get killed by air bags — to date, 15 belted adults. Many of these were short (under 62 inches) female drivers who apparently sat close to the steering wheel and were hit by the air bag as it expanded. Short people are now eligible to have a switch installed that lets them disable the air bag.

But let’s set aside the special cases. Air bags basically work and aren’t the dangerous boondoggle that some folks think. Admittedly the “passive” aspect of air bags was oversold. The real lesson here is that it’s impossible to design a safety feature so foolproof that you needn’t put your mind in gear before you step on the gas.

Cecil Adams

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