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Do Airbags Save Lives?

Since 1998, automakers have been required to install driver and passenger airbags in all new cars, and today an estimated 81 million, or 41 percent, of all cars and light trucks on U.S. roads are equipped with at least driver-side airbags, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. These special vehicle safety features are designed to prevent one's head, neck and chest from slamming into the dashboard, steering wheel or windshield in frontal impact crashes, which account for more than half of all vehicle occupant deaths.

The technology of safety

Designed to deploy in crashes that are equivalent to a vehicle crashing into a solid wall at eight to 14 miles per hour, these are essentially fabric bags that fill with non-harmful nitrogen gas upon impact, providing supplemental protection for the driver and front-seat passenger. So, how do they know when to inflate? Sensors located within the vehicle detect the intensity and direction of a collision as it happens. These sensors then send an electric signal that initiates a chemical reaction, which in turn causes them to inflate. Vents then allow them to deflate immediately after cushioning the occupants of the vehicle.

Saving lives on the road

Numerous studies have shown that they are effective in saving lives. The use of this device, in combination with a lap and shoulder seat belt, reduces the risk of serious head injury by 75 percent versus a 38 percent decrease for the use of belts alone, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The NHTSA also found that in frontal crashes, driver airbags reduce deaths by 26 percent for drivers wearing seat belts and passenger airbags reduce deaths by 14 percent among passengers wearing seat belts. In cases where the driver and/or passenger did not use the seat belt, airbags decreased deaths in frontal crashes by 32 percent and 23 percent, respectively. A 2006 report by the NHTSA noted that 2,796 lives were saved by frontal airbags among drivers and/or passengers, aged 5 years or older, involved in vehicular collisions.

Proper use of safety belts essential

Since the inception of these safety devices, there have been cases in which they seemed to cause more harm than good. Such events have led some to question whether they are worth the risk. All evidence indicates that while airbags can cause injuries at times, these safety features are relatively safe and are more likely to save lives when proper precautions are taken. Some accidents have indicated that occupants who are unrestrained or are wearing only the lap portion of the safety belt have incurred serious and even fatal injuries from deploying airbags. For this reason, drivers and passengers should always wear their shoulder and lap belts when driving a vehicle with them. Additionally, drivers who sit within 10 inches from the steering wheel are at risk for serious injury from deployment. However, when it comes to safety, the most at-risk groups are infants and young children. Infants should never be placed in the front seat, and especially in rear-facing child seats. It is also recommended that children aged 12 years or younger sit in the back seat and not the front passenger one.

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