Originally created 04/01/97

Age old question: Babies, children safer in back seat



Q:My wife and I do a fair amount of travel by car, and locally our grandchildren travel with us often. The question I have: Are air bags safe or unsafe? - F. L., Aiken

A:Air bags have certainly suffered a tarnished reputation in recent months. They have gone from recognition as pure lifesaving devices to a wary acceptance of benefits outweighing dangers. But to some, they are simply lethal. In the short history of air bags (since 1991), they have been implicated in the deaths of some 38 children and 24 adults. A large percentage of air-bag victims were not wearing seat belts or were of small stature, whether child or adult. In one particularly sad case, a woman who was eight months pregnant lost her unborn baby.

How can a lifesaving device cause such injuries? Air bags inflate in a split-second (literally about 30 to 50 milliseconds) when a crash occurs. Such rapid force and power is involved that the inflating bag is actually traveling at speeds of up to 200 mph right toward you.

Meanwhile, you are being hurtled toward it by the force of the crash impact. Normally this collision between body and bag is absorbed by the strong protective cage of the ribs. Among children and shorter adults, though, the head may take the full force of the deploying air bag.

But while each death was tragic and should not be minimized, it is important to remember that air bags have also saved an estimated 1,750 lives. National highway accident statistics indicate that by the end of last year, air bags had deployed in 1.5 million accidents.

What spelled the difference between the handful of fatalities and the million-plus uneventful incidents and the thousand-plus saved lives? Are air bags safe?

Much of the answer lies with drivers and their passengers, although within the past few weeks government regulators have given automakers permission to reduce the power and speed of air-bag deployment. But there are things you and I can do when driving or riding in a car equipped with air bags:

  • Always wear your seat belt. Air bags were designed as supplemental protection. More than half of the adult fatalities partially blamed on air bags occurred to people not wearing seat belts. Seat belts keep you farther away from the air bag during its time of rapid inflation when most injuries occur.
  • Shorter people (those below 5 feet, 5 inches) are also more at risk from air bags. Adults can position the seats as far back from the air bags as possible to give them the time and space to inflate safely. Twelve inches is the recommended distance.
  • If you have an adjustable steering wheel containing your driver's side air bag, tilt the wheel so the inflating bag is aimed at your chest, not up toward your face. Raise the seat for the same benefit.
  • For grandchildren's safety, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends that all children younger than 12 are seated in the back seat wearing seat belts or are strapped into a child seat appropriate to their age and weight. Never place a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger air bag.
  • With these simple precautions, air bags are safe. In front-end collisions, they reduce the risk of fatal injury by almost 30 percent.

    If you have a question or want additional information, write to Shirley McIntosh, Resource Center on Aging, 2803 Wrightsboro Road, Suite 51, Augusta, Ga. 30909.