Q. I’ve heard so many conflicting reports. Are my airbags safe?
A. Virtually all new cars have airbags and they're saving lives. They're reducing driver deaths by about 14% and passenger bags reduce deaths by about 11%.
People who use seat belts may think they don't need airbags. But they do. Airbags and lap/shoulder belts work together as a system, and one without the other isn't as effective. Deaths are 12% lower among drivers with belts and 9 percent lower among belted passengers. But there also are problems with airbags. Inflating bags have caused some serious injuries and deaths.
Q. Does it matter where I sit in my car?
A. Serious inflation injuries occur primarily because of people's positions when airbags first begin inflating. Anyone, regardless of size or age, who's on top of, or very close to, an airbag is at risk. Most airbag deaths have involved people who weren't using belts, were using them incorrectly, or were positioned improperly.
People without belts or using them incorrectly, especially passengers, are at risk because they're likely to move forward during hard braking or other violent maneuvers before crashes. Then they're likely to be very close to, or on top of, airbags before inflation begins. Improperly positioned people at risk include drivers who sit very close to the steering wheel — 10 inches or closer — and infants in rear-facing restraints in front seats.
Understanding that airbag injury risk is related to position leads to a few simple steps that can eliminate the risks without sacrificing airbag benefits.
Q. Does my height or the fact that I’m a woman put me at greater risk of airbag injury?
A. It isn't your size, gender, or age that determines risk. It's position in relation to an airbag. Most adults can virtually eliminate the risk by buckling up. Neither short women nor elderly drivers are especially vulnerable if they use safety belts and sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel.
Q. Should I consider an on/off switch for my airbag(s)?
A. The federal government has set criteria for the very few cases when airbag on/off switches may be needed to avoid injury. However, getting a driver airbag switch makes sense when one cannot comfortably drive while sitting back and away from the steering wheel. One may also wish to get permission for a switch based on medical need (i.e. a pregnant woman who cannot get her abdomen away from the steering wheel).