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Despite deaths, injuries and recalls, air bags still save lives

Jamie L. LaReau

In January 1997, Terri Vaccher saw a bright flash as she slammed head-on into the trailer of a semi-truck.

She feared the flash of light was her life ending, but it was the exact opposite.

Vaccher, who was 30 and eight months pregnant, was in her Ford Explorer SUV on a freeway in Irvine, California, that day when a tractor-trailer truck in front of her jackknifed and spun out across all lanes. She had little time to react at 60 mph.

"The whole dashboard was on my legs," said Vaccher. "I saw this bright light and I truly thought that I was going to die, but that light was actually the air bag coming out."

The impact of the air bag burned her arms and slammed her into the seat, where her seat belt cinched up hard to hold her in place.

She broke her left leg and knee and her right ankle. Rescuers spent an hour using the jaws of life to extricate her, but "nothing from my belly up" was injured. Two days later she gave birth to a premature, but healthy, boy she named Dominic.

"I'm just very, very grateful," said Vaccher. "I absolutely believe, had I not had an air bag and my seat belt on, I never would have survived that."

Vaccher's experience illustrates what data show: Working air bags save lives.

Which isn't to say air bags are without troubles. A typical air bag deploys at 200 mph, said Becky Mueller, senior research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. People have been hurt by them. And, in recent years, millions of vehicles have been recalled for defective air bags that killed at least 24 people.

Still, properly functioning air bags greatly increase the odds of surviving a severe crash, especially if the driver follows other basic safety rules.

The recalls

If people get a recall notice for a defective air bag, safety experts say it is critical to go to a dealership and get it repaired, which is free, as soon as possible.

"The horror of this type of defect is that you don't need it until you need it, and when you do need it, it's now going to be hurting you," said Jason Levine, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety in Washington, D.C. "A defective safety product is just as terrible as defective brakes or a steering wheel that prevents steering."

The most publicized air bag defect has been the Takata recall. In fact, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has dubbed it "the largest and most complex safety recall in U.S. history."

More: Automakers Tesla, Volkswagen and more recall 1.7 million cars over Takata air bags

More: Honda expected to recall about 1 million vehicles with dangerous air bags

It involves vehicles made by 19 different automakers and more than 41.6 million vehicles in the United States. Those cars were recalled to replace frontal air bags, made by parts supplier Takata. The air bags were mostly installed in 2002-15 model year cars. Some of those air bags could deploy explosively, injuring or even killing occupants. At the end of March, NHTSA reports that, worldwide, 300 have been hurt by the air bags in addition to the 24 deaths.

In addition: 

  • Last month, U.S. auto safety regulators said they were investigating about 12.3 million air bags made by auto supplier ZF-TRW and installed in vehicles from Fiat Chrysler, Honda, Hyundai, Kia, Mitsubishi and Toyota. These air bags  may have failed to deploy in crashes involving at least eight deaths. The air bags are used in model-year vehicles 2010-19, said a government document.
  • On May 6, NHTSA said that two owners of the Mazda CX-9 large SUV complained that the side curtain air bags can inflate for no reason. Four people were hurt in one of those cases. Regulators are investigating the complaint and said the probe covers CX-9s from the 2010-13 model years. Investigators will determine the possibility of a recall.

More: U.S. investigating reports of Mazda SUV side air bags that deploy for no reason

Lives saved

Frontal air bags have been standard equipment in all cars since model year 1998 and in all SUVs, pickups and vans since model year 1999. 

Air bags reduce the chance of an upper body or head injury during a crash. According to NHTSA data:

  • In frontal crashes, frontal air bags reduce driver fatalities by 29% and fatalities of front-seat passengers age 13 and older by 32%. 
  • NHTSA estimates that the combination of an air bag plus a seat belt reduces the risk of death in frontal crashes by 61%.
  • From 1987-2015, frontal air bags saved 44,869 lives.
  • In 2016, air bags are estimated to have saved 2,756 people.

One of those lives was Lynne McChristian. Early one morning in September 1999, McChristian was driving to work in Tampa.

As she turned left, an oncoming car plowed into the passenger side of her new Toyota Camry. The air bag in the steering wheel exploded in her face and her seat belt constricted with such force it broke her collarbone, she said. The car was totaled, but she was alive. She credits her life mostly to the air bag.

"The seat belt alone might not have been enough to prevent further damage to me," said McChristian, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Information Institute, a trade group focused on insurance education. "I could have hit that steering wheel with the force of that impact. That could have meant severe head trauma and facial damage."

Sometimes, the force required to quickly inflate air bags can injure people if they are seated too close to the air bag before it deploys, IIHS's Mueller said. The first generations of frontal air bags did injure a lot of people, experts say, because they deployed with greater force than those on later model cars.

NHTSA estimates that more than 290 deaths were the result of frontal air bag inflation in low-speed crashes from 1990-2008. Most of those deaths were in vehicles made before 1998, and more than 80 percent of people killed were not wearing a seat belt.

But in recent years, advanced government requirements have made serious injuries from properly functioning air bags rare. Technology has helped too. Sensors enable air bags to know if a 100-pound person is sitting close to the air bag or a 200-pound person is reclined in a seat, and "they can adjust to how soon, fast and how stiff that air bag deploys by those sensors," said Mueller.

Air bag injuries today are typically minor and far less life threatening than the situation the person would have faced without an air bag, Mueller said.

"But we understand it could be a dangerous thing in the wrong context," said Mueller. "That's why if you're in a fender bender at 5 mph, your air bag doesn't deploy because there's some risk in that" deployment.

Sensing a crash

Here are some safety tips drivers and passengers should follow when driving in a car with air bags:

  • Wear the seat belt. It helps save lives and minimize injury.
  • Shorter people should maintain 10 inches between the steering wheel and their chest. The first 2 inches of an air bag deploying have the most force.
  • Never put your feet on the dashboard.
  • Hold the steering wheel at the 3-and-9 or 4-and-7 positions and do not have your hands on the center part marked "air bag."
  • Pay attention to the road to avoid a collision in the first place.

Finally, safety experts say government tests air bags regularly to ensure they are as protective as possible, because if a person is in a high-speed crash, that person is better protected with a functioning air bag than without one.

"They are a highly tuned feature on your car that is far more intelligent than you can imagine," said Mueller. "They can sense a crash within milliseconds of hitting another vehicle or object. Air bags can deploy between 10 to 40 milliseconds of having a crash – that's a blink of an eye."

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Despite deaths, injuries and recalls, air bags still save lives