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by Bob Adelman

Airbags are excellent safety devices. Since the late 1980's, airbags have saved more than 2,620 lives nationwide, and have prevented many thousands of serious head and chest injuries.

Like any sophisticated device, airbags pose risks if they are not used properly. According to studies by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), as of November 1, 1997, 87 people had been killed by deployed airbags. NHTSA has described these deaths as "tragic, but rare" considering that there were about 1,800,000 airbag deployments as of that date.

What factor did these tragic deaths have in common? The victims were all too close to the airbag when it started to deploy.

Adults: NHTSA found that adults sitting too close to the airbag when it deployed were in jeopardy. To work effectively, an airbag must inflate at a high speed and with great force, especially within the first 2 - 3 inches after it bursts through its cover and begins to inflate. Occupants should be at least 10 inches away from the airbag, measuring from breastbone to airbag cover.

Children: the NHTSA study found that most of the children killed by deploying airbags were riding in the front seat, either unrestrained or improperly restrained by a safety belt or car seat. A significant number were infants riding in rear-facing car seats, which placed their heads only inches from the air bags. Child car seats must always be placed in the rear seat of cars which are equipped with passenger-side airbags.

On November 18, 1997, the government began allowing consumers in certain specific risk categories to install airbag on-off switches. Interested consumers must fill out an NHTSA request form and obtain their authorization before having a dealer or repair shop install the device. There is, of course, a risk that once consumers turn the airbag off, they may forget to turn it back on, so it may not deploy when needed. If you are considering installing an on-off switch and need further information, a free publication is available from NHTSA. You can call their hotline at 800/424-9393, or visit their website.

While nothing can guarantee complete safety in a crash, here are some simple steps to reduce some of the potential risks of airbags:

  • Always buckle your seat belt.
  • Adjust your seat as far back as practical, so there is at least 10 inches between the center of the airbag cover and your breastbone. Move your seat back as far as you can while still reaching the pedals comfortably. You can also slightly recline the back of your seat, but make sure you can still see the road easily.
  • Always place an infant in a car seat in the back seat. It is best to use a rear-facing infant seat.
  • Always transport children 1 to 12 years old in the back seat and use appropriate child restraints. You should do this even if your car doesn't have an airbag.
  • Do not allow children to ride on the laps of others.
  • If your steering wheel is adjustable, tilt it downward to point to your chest instead of your head and neck.
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