Airbag debate focuses on lives saved vs. injuries

by Heather Fors

No doubt about it. An airbag protected Carilla Hunt Wallin from major injury during a July car accident, she said.
“I felt safe,” said Wallin, a junior in the College of Liberal Arts. “I didn’t really feel the impact at all because of the airbag.”
But while Wallin walked away from the accident with only a few scrapes and bruises, others have suffered more from airbag deployment than from the crashes themselves.
Airbag-related injuries and deaths have caused a debate for years as to whether the safety devices are a life saver or a killer.
And a recent decision from the U.S Department of Transportation documents might once again put the spotlight on the airbag debate.
Effective Jan. 19, the department will grant on-off airbag switches for drivers who meet certain criteria. The switch would let the driver decide if the airbag should be shut off or ready to deploy. Criteria includes the driver or the passenger having a medical condition or the need for a child to ride in the front passenger seat.
However, Tristian Grobel, a salesman at Borton Volvo, noted that when seatbelts came out 50 years ago, people had the same attitude toward them that they now have toward airbags.
The debate also goes on at the University level where some faculty members and students claim airbag deployment was the only cause of injury in their accidents.
In 1997, University Police filed 75 accident reports that claimed property damage and 22 that claimed injuries. Although they don’t keep statistics on airbag deployment or injuries caused by airbags, officials say they have seen cases where passengers have complained of airbag-related injuries.
But Ray Arntson, a University Fleet Services safety officer, said from his experience, airbags have been beneficial.
In the last six years, there have been about 320 accidents in University cars. Airbags have deployed in some of these instances, which adds an additional cost factor for repair. “(But) over all, if you look at the lives that have been saved by (airbags), this is a minor factor,” Arntson said.
The major complaint to airbag- related injuries and deaths is that the airbag simply deploys too fast, hitting the passenger or driver with an incredible force.
When airbag regulations were first set, their standard force of deployment was set at a high speed — up to 200 mph. Now in some cars, the speed has been reduced.
Other people complain that the airbag reacts too late, only causing more damage. Another major complaint is that in some cases the airbag simply malfunctions, deploying for no reason or during a minor accident.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration documents have shown that 87 people have died due to airbag deployment. About 50 of these were children. Statistics show that most of these children either weren’t wearing seatbelts or weren’t properly secured in booster seats. Other child deaths were the result of backward seating in infant seats, placing the infant’s head only a few inches from an air bag.
Officials say many of these accidents could have been prevented if the child rode in the back seat.
Statistics show the rest of the deaths, which involved adults, were caused by improper restraints. Of these, most were completely unbuckled.
Two of the unbuckled drivers had medical conditions causing them to slump over the steering wheel directly before the collision.
Some of the drivers did not correctly use their seat belts, and it is believed that the others were sitting too close to the steering wheel, according to the statistics.
Despite all these deaths and injuries, safety officials stand behind airbags.
According to the Institute for Highway Safety documents, airbags, since their introduction in the late 1980s, have saved about 2,620 lives.
However, in 42 percent of airbag deployments, some degree of injury was suffered by the vehicle occupants.
“(I’m sure they) can design censors and tune them so they know if you’re running into a brick wall (but they’re) mass produced, just like light bulbs — they don’t always work,” said Pat Starr, a University mechanical engineering professor.
For drivers in head-on collisions, statistics show fatalities have been reduced by 30 percent, while passenger fatalities have been reduced by 27 percent.
According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety documents, airbags and seatbelts are a system that should be used together. Without airbags, even belted drivers move forward in serious frontal collisions — often hitting their faces on the steering wheel.
“If you use seatbelts with airbags, from what I have read, there’s no problem. You still have to use the seat belt for the airbag to be effective,” Starr said.
Another consideration is driver and passenger responsibility. “We should look at driving characteristics and habits that can improve our driving, rather than rely on secondary means of safety,” Arnston said.
While hundreds of lives were saved by airbags, the fact remains that as of Nov. 1, more than 80 people in the United States have died due to airbags.
For this reason, some officials think the choice should be up to the buyers.
“We want car owners to have the right to buy cars without airbags if they don’t want them, or have a switch in the car to turn it off if they want,” said Todd Franklin, communications director of the National Motorists Association. He added, “We don’t think the government should mandate safety devices that could kill.”
While the switch will be available for some people, Franklin believes the criteria are too strict.
However, Phil Frame, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration still believes that seatbelts and airbags are the best form of protection.
“We haven’t seen any problem with people buckled up,” he said. Frame added that airbags add 30 percent more protection to people wearing seatbelts.
Airbags are designed to protect people’s heads, necks and chests from hitting the dash, steering wheel or windshield during a front-end collision.
However, not all airbags are the same — they differ in design and performance. The differences can be seen in speed and force deployment, size and shape, and in the way they unfold and inflate.
— Staff Photographer Melissa Jansson contributed to this story