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:
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.