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Airbags Can Save Lives

American Government Special Collections Reference Desk

Airbags Can Save Lives

Alan Haburchak
December 1, 2007

Alan Haburchak

Airbags were invented and patented in the 1950s to cushion the impact and prevent or lessen injuries sustained in auto accidents. Studies show that thousands of lives have been saved by air bags, with fatalities reduced by up to 46 percent in airbag-equipped vehicles, but it is difficult to determine an exact number.

Airbags help prevent an occupant's head from striking some part of the inside of the vehicle, and help distribute crash forces more evenly across the victim's body. However, their rapid deployment can cause injuries or death.

An airbag is a flexible bag inflated by a gas in less than 1/20 of a second after an impact. The first crash-sensing detector was introduced in the late 1960s, leading to airbag systems where the sensor or accelerometer triggers ignition of a gas generator to rapidly inflate the bag. The bag then absorbs some of the deceleration forces experienced when the occupant collides with and collapses it while the gas escapes through small vent holes during the next 3/10 of a second.

In the 1970s, Ford, GM and Chrysler offered airbags in select cars as a seatbelt replacement, and they became more common in the 1980s. In 1984, the U.S. government required all cars produced after April 1, 1989 to have driver's side air bags, and in 1998, dual front airbags were mandated (1999 for light trucks). De-powered, second-generation airbags were required, because first-generation airbags designed for occupants not wearing seatbelts were causing injuries. Advances continue to improve airbag performance.

Today, many cars have additional airbags designed to protect occupants' heads, protect from side impact, and protect passengers in the back seat. Various manufacturers have called their products Supplementary/Secondary Restraint Systems (SRS), Air Cushion Restraint Systems (ACRS) or Supplemental Inflatable Restraints (SIR).

Why wear a safety belt? It's important to wear a safety belt, even when in a vehicle equipped with air bags. Those not wearing seatbelts may slide or be thrown forward against the airbag module, and be seriously injured or killed if the airbag deploys. Most air bags only inflate once, and do not provide protection past an initial impact. Standard front-impact air bags do not deploy for side or rear impact crashes, or rollovers. Seat belts reduce risk in many types of crashes, keep occupants in the position where they receive the most benefit from the air bag, and protect against multiple collisions, or collisions where the air bags are not triggered. What other airbag safety factors exist? Injuries and deaths associated with airbag deployment follow several trends. First is the presence of first-generation airbags. Later-generation, multi-stage bags deploy more slowly, and with less force, and better respond to crash forces and occupant size. Improved technology and education helped reduce airbag-related fatalities from 1996 to 2000 by more than 90 percent for children and by 60 percent for adults.

Still, people suffer abrasions, hearing damage from the explosive deployment, head injuries, eye damage (while wearing glasses), and broken noses, fingers, hands or arms. Anything in the mouth ' a pipe, cigarette, toothpick, etc. ' can cause additional injury, as can anything loose in the car in contact with the airbag module.

Airbags can present a serious danger to infants, small children and small adults. All adult drivers and passengers should move their seat back as far as possible, with drivers still at a comfortable distance to safely operate the vehicle. They should also sit back in their seat, keeping at least 10 inches between the breastbone and the airbag module. Those with asthma should be aware that powders (cornstarch or talcum powder) used to lubricate the airbag as it deploys may trigger an asthma attack. Seek treatment after an accident involving airbag deployment.

Infants and children under 12 should never ride in the front passenger seat, even in a child safety seat or booster chair. Manufacturers of pickup trucks and other vehicles with no back seat have begun including a switch to allow drivers to disable the passenger air bag when a child must ride in the passenger seat.

For vehicles without such switches, they can be installed to accommodate people with medical conditions or who can't sit far enough back to stay 10 inches away from the airbag, or for those who need to transport infants or children and have no back seat or a back seat too small to fit a child seat.

Even after an accident when the airbags have not deployed, victims and rescue personnel must be cautious. Airbags can deploy some time after the initial impact, causing injury and death.

Most car manufacturers recommended airbags, if never deployed due to an accident, be replaced as their cars age, to ensure proper performance in the case of an accident. Timing varies, but a 14-year life for an un-deployed airbag is typical. Airbags typically run a self-test when the vehicle is started, and a dashboard indicator lights up when there is a problem.

If you have suffered injury from improper airbag deployment or a car crash, you may wish to consult with an experienced auto accident or personal injury attorney about your case. Your personal injury attorney may be able to help you receive compensation for your injuries, lost wages, and/or future medical care.

LegalView.com, the most informative site on the Web for legal information, offers users a wide variety of resources on auto accidents. By visiting http://crash.legalview.com , users will learn how to contact an auto accident lawyer. LegalView also offers other legal information such as how to locate a mesothelioma law firm or how to find a brain injury attorney. Visit http://www.legalview.com for more information.

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