In the ’90s, airbags were scrutinized as some publicly questioned if they caused more harm than they were worth. Today, it’s widely accepted that airbags do generally make drivers and their passengers safer — the National Highway and Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) estimates they saved 25,782 lives between 1987 and 2008 — but even with (and sometimes because of) recent innovations, they remain an imperfect system.
An article in the Chicago Tribune noted that recalls of cars with smart airbags reached strikingly high numbers (over 800,000) over the last year.
Airbags can cause injuries, especially to smaller passengers or drivers and children, when they rapidly deploy (often as fast as 200 miles an hour); smart airbags were supposed to solve some of these problems by measuring the weight of the passenger, the force of the impact and other factors, then determining how fast and when to deploy.
Some “high IQ” systems, however, failed to engage when they should or activated when they shouldn’t in a variety of cars made by European, American, and Asian manufacturers. No serious injuries or fatalities were reported at the time of the article, and automakers have endeavored to fix the kinks in their safety systems.
While certain factors lie outside of a motorist’s control, there are several measures that make for a safer environment in the car. Although airbags were initially presented as an alternative to seat belts in the ’70s, buckling in is unanimously recommended by experts (airbags or not), and is still your best protection in a crash.
In a car with airbags, it’s also important to note that the closer a person sits to the site from which they deploy, the more likely they are to be injured. That means drivers and passengers should keep their seats as far back as possible. The NHTSA also urges that rear facing car seats should never be put in the front according to the NHTSA and as a as a general rule, children under 13 should sit in the back.
Most cars made after 2007 have smart airbags that won’t deploy if they detect a youngster in the front (provided they’re not one of the recalled models), but many made before that year do not. If your child cannot ride in the back, it’s worth consulting your vehicle owner’s manual for info on how to turn off your passenger side airbag in case of a collision.
Those who want to check for product recalls associated with airbags can check out this NHTSA site for more information.