Millions of vehicles in Canada now have air bags.There is abundant evidence that air bags, used in conjunction with seat-belts, save lives. Transport Canada has estimated they saved 100 lives in 1998. Since air bags were introduced, a total of six people (including one child) were killed, none of whom appears to have been properly restrained.
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Air bags are an evolving technology. Many of the concerns currently being expressed will be addressed in the near future as air bag systems become more advanced. “Smart” air bags are being developed, which will inflate according to such factors as seat-belt use, occupant size, occupant presence and closeness to the air bag module.
Are passenger side air bags dangerous? Media reports unfortunately have led to fears that air bags can kill and injure children. These fears have been reinforced by a new message, that children 12 and under must sit in the back to protect them from possible air bag deployment. The question of whether children are safe in the front seat becomes more troubling with growing consumer demand for pick-up trucks and other utility/specialty vehicles which may have no back seat whatsoever.
The Canada Safety Council has not seen any credible, relevant data that air bag deployment poses a serious risk for properly restrained persons. The one exception is that a rear facing infant seat must never be used in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger side air bag; current rear facing infant seats were not designed for use with passenger side air bags. Data from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in the U.S. (Status Report, December 7, 1996) show that air bags do not endanger properly restrained children:
- Air bags reduced fatalities among right front-seat occupants ages 10 to 64 by 23 per cent in frontal crashes.
- With children nine and under, fatalities were about 33 per cent higher “than expected” in frontal crashes. Consider that, of the 31 children killed by deploying air bags, nine (i.e. 27 per cent) were infants in rear-facing restraints: which almost accounts for those above the “expected” number. These children should never have been seated in the front passenger position.
- Of the remaining 22 child fatalities, 17 were believed to be unbelted, three were believed to be using lap belts only, and two were using lap/shoulder belts but may have been sitting on the seat edge. It is highly likely none of them was properly restrained.
Proper restraint the root of the problem. The underlying issue is that children must be properly restrained. Statistics show that only about four per cent of Canadian children are properly restrained to legal and manufacturer specifications. Whether they are in the front or back seat, this puts them seriously at risk.
In 1989, the National Occupant Restraint Program set a goal of 95 per cent seat-belt usage by the year 1995 (95 by ’95). This program involved collaboration of provincial and federal agencies, including police, and safety organizations. As a result, seat-belt use among adults in the front seat has risen to well over 90 per cent. The Canada Safety Council is very concerned about the dismal record for restraint of children and has identified this issue as a top priority for national action.
Air bags add protection, not risk. Pockets of opposition to seat-belts lasted for a long time after provincial legislation came into effect. In 1988, seat-belt legislation was challenged and initially overturned in Alberta. This led to a drop in usage from 83 per cent to 45 per cent, with a related increase in deaths and injuries. If provincial governments and safety agencies across Canada had allowed opponents of seat-belts to have their way, usage would have fallen significantly as it did in Alberta before a higher court ruled in favor of the legislation.
The result: hundreds more Canadians would be dying in collisions every year. In a similar way, fuelled by media reports, air bags are now being challenged. People are demanding deactivation; consumers will not want vehicles equipped with air bags, especially if they must carry children. If the current paranoia about air bags were to lead to widespread deactivation, one could reasonably expect an increase in traffic fatalities people who could have been saved by an air bag. Moreover, deactivating an air bag is not as easy as it may sound.
Some vehicles with air bags have less tension in the front shoulder belts than required without an air bag. Some may not meet current Canadian crashworthiness standards without the air bag. Do-it-yourselfers may be injured by an accidental deployment if they try to deactivate an air bag. Evidence clearly shows more people are killed in vehicles without air bags than those with air bags. Deactivating an air bag undeniably increases the risk of death or serious injury. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, air bags saved about 4,442 lives in the U.S. from 1986 to June 1999, and are blamed for 141 deaths over that period. This is the success against which air bag injuries should be assessed. Why would anyone want less protection in case of a crash?
- Driving defensively is always the best safety measure.
- Children (and all other vehicle occupants) must be properly restrained, whether in the front or back seat.
- Never place a rear facing infant seat in the front of a vehicle with a passenger side air bag.
- Used in conjunction with seat-belts, air bags save lives.
- Air bag deactivation will not enhance safety for properly restrained vehicle occupants.