Airbags have contributed to vehicle safety, and are generally credited with a role in the downward trend in traffic fatality rates. In the early 1970s, there were more than 50,000 traffic deaths annually, despite the US population being considerably smaller than it is today. The rate of traffic fatalities was more than 25 per 100,000 people.
The numbers fluctuated over the next decade or so, as new safety features became available, but were unevenly used. For example, in 1968, federal law mandated that all new vehicles be equipped with seat belts. But, not everyone drove a new car. And, seat belt laws didn’t become widespread until the mid-1980s and early 1990s. Some states lagged even further behind, and New Hampshire still doesn’t require seat belts for adults.
As seat belt usage became more common, the technology was improved, and other safety features became available, fatalities dropped to fewer than 33,000 in 2014–a rate of just over 10 per 100,000 people.
How Much Did Airbags Contribute to the Dropping Fatality Rate?
While it’s difficult to pin down the exact impact of each safety feature and each other variable on the improving traffic fatality rates, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has estimated that front airbags saved 50,457 lives between 1987 and 2017. That’s an average of 1,682/year, but the impact actually skews more heavily toward recent years. In 2017, for example, front airbags are estimated to have saved 2,670 lives. There are many reasons for the increasing number of lives saved, including:
- Front airbags didn’t become mandatory in the U.S. until 1998, and
- There was a lag time after airbags became mandatory when most people were still driving older, pre-mandate vehicles, and
- The safety and efficacy of airbags has improved over time
For example, early airbags injured many children, and even killed a small number of kids. Airbags still present a greater danger to children–and some other groups such as the elderly and small women–than they do to young and middle-aged adults of approximately average size. But, the risk to children have been mitigated over time, first by warning not to seat children in the front seat if you had passenger side airbags, and then with sensors that could turn off an airbag if a person below a certain weight was in the front passenger seat, and later with more sophisticated technology that could adjust the force of deployment when a smaller person was in the seat.
Some risk remains, for a few reasons:
- Airbags deploy forcefully, and must to do their jobs–that means that will always be some risk of impact injury,
- Exactly how your airbags operate and which safety features are in use will depend on variables like the model and age of your vehicle,
- Like any other product, there is a potential for airbags to be defective, and
- Drivers and passengers don’t always follow airbag safety protocols
Because there are a range of airbag technologies in use depending primarily on the age of the vehicle, it’s important to pay attention to manufacturer information about your particular airbags. For example, don’t rely on having read that airbags are now equipped with sensors that adapt to children–understand that the airbags in your vehicle may not have that feature and find out before factoring it into your decision making.
Because of these differences, the best practices for you and your family will depend on the equipment you have, the size and age of your family members, and other variables. But, there are some general recommendations.
Following airbag safety protocols helps protect you and your family from serious injury or death. It also helps protect any personal injury claim you might bring after the motor vehicle accident. If a jury determines that you were negligent and that negligence contributed to your injuries, your right to damages may be reduced or even eliminated.
Always Wear Your Seatbelt with Airbags
You might think that it was less important to wear a seatbelt if you have an airbag to protect you, but that’s a serious mistake. Airbags are designed to protect a person sitting back in the seat. But, an unrestrained person won’t stay in place. In fact, in many types of collisions, the driver or passenger who isn’t wearing a seatbelt will be propelled forward at a high rate of speed–colliding with the deploying airbag. In this situation, the person is closer to the airbag as it deploys and their own forward motion increases the impact, greatly increasing the risk of certain types of injuries.
Keep Kids in the Back Seat
Neither Massachusetts nor New Hampshire has a law regarding children riding in the front seat. But, both the American Academy of Pediatrics and many car manufacturers recommend that children under 13 ride in the back seat. There’s more than one reason for that precaution, including the fact that seat belts are designed for adults. Even a child who is as large as an adult isn’t constructed exactly like an adult, and may be at greater risk of injury. Another reason is
that airbags present a greater danger to kids.
They’re safest in the back seat. If a child under 13 must ride in the front passenger seat, the seat should be positioned as far back as possible to distance the child from the airbag.
When Airbags Fail
The risks, protective measures, and risk-benefit analysis above all assume airbags are operating as designed, and that the design wasn’t defective. When defective or malfunctioning airbags cause injury, the situation is different. For example, a small number of people around the United States have been injured or killed when airbags failed to deploy as intended.
If you’ve been injured or lost a loved one due to a defective airbag, you may have a product liability claim.
The best way to determine who may be responsible for your injuries after a car accident is to talk with an experienced injury lawyer. Attorney Kevin P. Broderick offers free consultations to injury victims in both Massachusetts and New Hampshire. You can schedule yours right now by calling 978-459-3085 or filling out the contact form on this site.
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