Today's Air Bags Less Dangerous: Study

They help prevent crash-related deaths but pose little threat to smaller passengers

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TUESDAY, July 18, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- The front air bags now installed in cars offer as much protection as first-generation air bags but are less likely to kill children or small adults when they deploy, a U.S. government study finds.

First-generation air bags, which were installed in vehicles until 1998, deployed with such force that they were potentially deadly for children and small adults, according to background information in the study. Second-generation airbags were refined to deploy with less force and reduce this risk. However, there have been concerns that the newer airbags may fail to fully protect larger people who, because they're not wearing their seatbelts, are propelled forward at high force during a crash.

Reporting in the current issue of the American Journal of Epidemiology, researchers analyzed U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data on over 128,000 occupants of more than 53,000 cars (model years 1987 to 2003) involved in crashes occurring between 1990 to 2002.

First-generation airbags were associated with a 10 percent decrease in the risk of death for an average front-seat occupant, while second-generation airbags were associated with an 11 percent decrease, the study found.

It also found that first-generation airbags were associated with a statistically significant increase in the risk of death for children younger than 6 years old. There was no such association for second-generation airbags.

"Occupants in the path of a deploying air bag may receive its full force and be injured by it," principal investigator Dr. Carin Olson, associate professor of medicine and adjunct professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington, said in a prepared statement.

"This is especially true for women and children, who may sit relatively close to the dashboard. We found that second-generation air bags, designed to hit occupants in their path with less force than first-generation air bags, were not associated with a significantly increased risk of death for any type of occupant as compared with the risk for death with first-generation air bags," she said. "Consumers, policymakers, and manufacturers can be assured that the increased safety of second-generation air bags for children was not offset by less protection for older occupants."

The study was funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

More information

The National Safety Council has more about air bags.

SOURCE: University of Washington, news release, July 17, 2006

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