Car Corner
Air Bags. Do they work?

January 1, 1999
By Scott Lewis

I was planning on telling you about the new Acura TL3.2. But alas, I only got a very short drive in my brother-in-laws, and I haven’t gotten a chance to drive my friend’s. So this month I will talk about Air Bags. Do they really work? Do they save lives? Do they take lives?

The simple answers are… yes, yes, and yes. But it is more complicated than that. I am not going to go into all the statistical BS out there. I will mention a little numbers, but I didn’t verify any of them (they make the point, and that is what this article is all about).

Air bags have saved approximately 3,450 people and have killed something like 155 people. These are estimates from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. (Like I said, I didn’t verify these to the nth degree for this article. Generalizations will due.)

Where is the problem? For starters, these numbers are estimates. Granted, it would be a monumental task to have truly accurate numbers. (Unless we call the psychic hotline.) These estimates are based on mathematical analysis of real crashes. Fair enough. Let’s assume for the moment that the numbers are totally accurate (they probably are close anyway). We still have over 150 dead people.

The NHTSA says that over 2,400 of the lives saved were people not wearing a seat belt. Oops. Keep in mind this means around 1,000 people were saved because they had both an air bag and a seat belt to save them. This is the case with air bags. They are supposed to work with seat belts.

Back to the 155 losers. Most of them were children in the front seat. Of the adults, most were short women. Why? Simple (and this is were we can blame someone). Air bags were originally design to save an average man (5’9" – 170 lbs.), while not wearing a seat belt, from becoming road pizza if he hit a wall at 30 miles per hour. Most of the deaths were also low speed accidents. So small women (assumed to have shorter legs) sit much closer to the air bag that must deploy fast enough, and with enough force, to stop a grown man too stupid to wear a seat belt travelling with a lot of force toward the windshield.

This is too much force for a small women to endure. So she dies. Cold, but true. Why did they design them this way? Because the federal government (I think this falls under the EPA, but I can’t remember) required auto manufacturers to do it. The government has eased the requirements for air bags so they don’t have to stop a full-grown man from a 30-mph crash without a seat belt. I am not sure of the new requirement, but they should do a lot to prevent more deaths.

No matter what, keep kids in the back seat. They are safer there, assuming they are properly buckled up. It is also illegal in many places to let small children ride in the front with an air bag.

Unfortunately, the death toll will continue for a while. There are many cars still on the road with the older style air bags.

Just remember that saving lives is not an easy job. I wouldn’t blame anyone too much. Overall, air bags are a good life saving device. So are seat belts. Use them both. You short women might want to turn off the air bag unless you know it was designed with you in mind.