Air Bags Pose Risks to Kids as Old as 14

Age, not size, seems to determine vulnerability, study finds

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HealthDay Reporter

MONDAY, June 6, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- For years, the U.S. government has warned that children aged 12 and younger can be injured or killed by the force of a motor vehicle's passenger side air bag.

Now, researchers who evaluated a large database of motor vehicle crashes say kids are actually at risk until age 14.

"Most of the time drivers have a choice about where the child is going to sit," said Dr. Craig Newgard, co-author of the study, published in the June issue of Pediatrics.

Based on the study results, Newgard suggests that if a child is aged 14 or younger, he or she should not sit in a front passenger seat equipped with an air bag.

Newgard and his co-author, Dr. Roger Lewis of the University of California, Los Angeles, looked at a sample of 3,790 children, ageds 1 month to 18 years, who were seated in the right front seat and involved in motor vehicle crashes. The statistics spanned eight years and were supplied by the National Automotive Sampling System Crashworthiness Data System, regarded as one of the most current, comprehensive databases on air bags and injuries, the researchers said.

Newgard and Lewis evaluated cutoff points based on age, height and weight to determine whether any one -- or all -- of them put a child at increased risk of serious injury in an accident.

Children aged newborn to 14 involved in frontal accidents seemed to be at increased risk of serious injury from an air bag, they found.

"The age cut between 14 and 15 years was very consistent," said Newgard, who's with the Department of Emergency Medicine at Oregon Health and Science University, in Portland. "The kids 14 and under looked to be at risk for serious injury, and those ages 15 to 18 had a protective effect from the air bags."

"The odds of serious injury increased 2.6 times in the 0-14 age group whenthey were seated in front of a passenger side air bag, although thisincrease was not statistically significant," added Newgard. On the other hand, "the odds of serious injury were reduced 81 percent in the 15-to-18 age group when they were seated in front of a passenger side air bag. That was statstically significant."

What isn't known, Newgard added, is why body size rather than age isn't a better indicator of risk, especially since other research has shown that adults of smaller stature may be vulnerable to injury from an air bag. The fact that age seems to determine risk may have to do with bone or muscle development, Newgard speculated, although that information was beyond the scope of the study.

In 1995, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a strong warning that air bags may pose "significant risks of injury and death" for children, Newgard pointed out in the study. In 1996, the NHTSA published a "final rule," requiring warning labels on all new passenger vehicles beginning in 1997. The warning labels state: "Children 12 and under can be killed by the air bags."

Newgard said the age 12 cutoff was based on the best information available at the time, but the new analysis of the nearly 4,000 children from the national database provided even better insights.

A National Highway Traffic Safety Administration spokesman, Rae Tyson, when told of the new study, said, "We stand by our recommendation." However, he added, "there is nothing wrong with erring on the side of safety" and instructing children older than 12 to stay in the back seat.

Larry Schneider is a research professor at the University ofMichigan Transportation Research Institute who conducts air bag research. He said, "NHTSA recommends that kids under 12 sit in the back seat, so to recommend that kids under 14 sit in the back seat is simply taking a more conservative position. The fact is that we are all safer in the back seat, regardless of our age."

More information

To learn more about vehicle safety, visit the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

SOURCES: Craig D. Newgard, M.D., M.P.H., Oregon Health and Science University, Portland; Rae Tyson, spokesman, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Washington, D.C.; Larry Schneider, Ph.D., research professor, University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute; June 2005, Pediatrics

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