Air bags not always lifesaver

March 23, 1997


Staff Writer

On Christmas Eve, Jerry Proctor, a volunteer assistant with the Mercersburg Police Department, was driving a newly repaired police cruiser back to the barracks when it was involved in a crash with a pickup truck.

Both vehicles were going about 25 mph, and the cruiser's driver's-side air bag inflated, hitting Proctor in the upper chest and chin.

He credits "the perfect team" of his seat belt and the air bag for the fact that he was not injured.


For Proctor, the airbag's impact "was just like a little stun."

For Proctor, who is 6 feet, 5 inches tall, the air bag worked exactly as it is supposed to. But for some people - children, senior citizens, those who fail to wear seat belts, and adults less than 100 pounds and under 5 feet tall - an air bag can be deadly.

Proctor said that in his case, the top of the air bag hit him in the chin. But for shorter drivers the bag "could probably come up and cover their whole face," depending on the tilt of the steering wheel, he said.

Safety officials agree that although air bags have saved an estimated 1,700 lives since 1986, they do pose certain risks, especially if other safety precautions are not followed.

At least 38 children and 24 adults have died when air bags deployed in lower-speed accidents that they could have been expected to survive, according to government statistics.

Mistaken beliefs

A recent national survey showed that nearly 60 percent of adults polled mistakenly believe that passenger-side air bags are saving more children's lives than not, according to the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

There are no documented cases of a child being saved by an air bag, center Director John Graham said.

All of the 38 children killed by air bags were sitting in the front passenger seat and most were decapitated, Graham said.

Nine of those were infants. Of the 29 older children who died, 25 were not wearing seat belts and two were wearing lap belts without shoulder belts, according to Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety in Arlington, Va.

Last Friday the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration responded to public outcry with a new regulation that allows new cars to be equipped with air bags that will deploy with 20 percent to 35 percent less force than they do now. Air bags can deploy at up to 200 mph.

Some fear the less forceful air bags may be a mixed blessing.

"They're going to reduce the effectiveness of air bags," Hagerstown Police Officer Randy Rourke predicted.

"There will be fewer children and there will be fewer small women (killed) but there may be more full-size adults killed," Dr. Bruce Foster, chief of emergency medicine at Waynesboro Hospital, said.

Tri-State hospital emergency rooms don't officially track air bag injuries, but an informal survey turned up reports of only minor injuries, such as facial cuts and bruises, from air bags deployed in accidents in the area.

Local police and emergency room staff maintain that the safety benefits of air bags outweigh their risks if the occupants are properly positioned in the vehicle and restrained by seat belts.

"With the combination of seat belt laws and air bags we don't see nearly the severity of trauma we used to," Foster said. "They're a wonderful thing, but they can't be all things for all people."

For safety's sake, children, small adults and the elderly should sit in the back seat, he said.

For passengers of all ages "the safest part of any car is in the middle part of the rear seat because it's farthest from any impact," Rourke said.

"Airbags do save lives. The key in a lot of those (fatal) accidents were the children were not properly restrained," said Marsha Tidler, executive director of Washington County's Children's Village, where youngsters receive safety training.

Infants up to 1 year old and weighing less than 20 pounds should be placed in a rear-facing child seat in the back seat, she said. Children up to 4 years of age and 40 pounds should be placed in the back seat, in front-facing child seats.

Experts say child safety seats should be used in conjunction with seats belts according to their instructions.

Drivers can be fined

Drivers who fail to properly restrain babies and young children in approved car seats can be fined, said Rourke, who is police curriculum coordinator at Children's Village.

Some people think if a vehicle is outfitted with air bags then seat belts are unnecessary.

Not true, Rourke said.

Air bags are "an additional safety device" but "seat belts are the No. 1 thing to put on," he said.

Eventually "smart" air bags might detect the approximate weight, height and position of the vehicle's occupants so that they will deploy only at the appropriate speed and distance, Rourke said.

The National Transportation Safety Board is holding a four-day forum this week in Washington, D.C., to define the dangers of air bags and possible solutions.

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