Study Questions Airbag Standards

Emerging research into front <"">air bags in automobiles has prompted some efficacy questions, writes CNET. It seems research found that when looking at air bags, new versions might be placing drivers wearing seat belts at risk. The newest airbag were required in all vehicles in 2008—some as far back as 2004, pointed out CNET.

Most—80 percent—of drivers wear seatbelts, said CNET, citing federal figures, with standards in place by the government meant to increase protection for those drivers not belted. Carmakers were required to install the airbags known as smart bags following concerns that prior versions were harming drivers and passengers, said CNET.

“Part of the challenge we are facing is to truly understand what we’re seeing,” said Robert Strassburger of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, quoted CNET. The alliance represents 11 key automobile manufacturers, such as the three Detroit companies. “With more data, will it go away? If not, we have to determine the root cause,” Strassburger added. The research (the PDF file can be accessed at: was conducted by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and is scheduled for publication in 2010 in The Annals of Epidemiology, a peer-reviewed journal, added CNET.

Safety experts concur that seat belts are the most effective way in which to prevent serious injury or fatalities when car crashes occur—over 25,000 lives have been saved due to airbags, said CNET, citing federal estimates. But now, research has found that a statistical analysis of over 3,600 driver and front-seat passenger deaths in frontal crashes that occurred from 2004 to 2007, points to airbags being more effective in unbelted drivers and passengers, reported CNET.

“It is possible that the systems are not making the right decisions,” said David Zuby, senior vice president for vehicle research at the insurance institute, quoted CNET. “Under previous requirements, air bags didn’t need to be quite so sophisticated,” Zuby added. The researchers discovered that belted drivers experienced a 21 percent increased risk of death in cars equipped with the latest air bag models versus cars with earlier air bag models, said CNET. “The fact is that we’re not getting optimal protection for belted drivers…. The study does not suggest that people should turn off their air bags nor does it suggest that people should unbuckle their seat belts. It says that government regulations and air bag designers could do a better job of protecting belted drivers,” Zuby added, quoted CNET.

Although the study did not provide an explanation for the higher risk to belted drivers, safety experts mentioned some key points which may be contributing factors including that the new systems are more complex and must assess a variety of conditions before a deploy decision is made, and the system my not be operating properly. Also, new test requirements may have changed when and with what force the bags are deployed. Vehicle design changes could increase the force to occupants, said CNET.

The issue with airbag standards comes when automakers, specifically Toyota, are being faced with mountains of recalls. For instance, we recently wrote that Honda Motor Company expanded its international recall for faulty air bags, said the Chicago Tribune.

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