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Face It: Airbags Alone Aren't Enough

To avoid facial injuries, use seatbelts, too

TUESDAY, May 22, 2001 (HealthDayNews) -- If you really want to protect your cheekbones and nose from being mashed in a car crash, don't count on your airbag for protection -- unless you also buckle up.

That's the conclusion of a new two-part study that looked at more than 3,700 people treated by surgeons at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital following motor vehicle accidents.

Of the almost 2,300 people treated between 1996 and 2000 who did not use any restraining devices, 17 percent had bones broken in their faces. With airbags alone, that number was reduced to 11 percent. With seatbelts alone, the number fell even further, to 8 percent.

But, the percentage of facial fractures sank to 5 percent if the patient reported using a combination of airbags and seatbelts.

"We did the first part to show in severe accidents that airbags actually protect," says Dr. Payman Simoni, a resident in the division of otolaryngology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine, and the study's lead author.

But the second part of the study, which examined the patterns of facial fractures, showed that "even though the airbags protect…fractures [of the cheekbones and nose] may be caused by the velocity of the airbag toward the face," Simoni says.

The researchers divided the facial fractures into four categories: nasal -- the nose; mandibular -- the lower jaw; zygomaticomaxillary complex (ZMC) -- the cheekbone; and the orbit -- the bone structure containing the eyeball.

Nasal fractures were the most common, present in half the cases. Cheekbone fractures followed at 46 percent, while jaw fractures were at the bottom of the list -- 27 percent.

What these statistics show, the researchers say, is that using an airbag alone will still leave an accident victim vulnerable to fractures of the nose and cheekbones.

These results come as no surprise to Susan Ferguson, vice president for research at the non-profit Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

"We know that airbags do cause injury," says Ferguson, adding that part of the problem is if "people don't wear seatbelts, in a frontal crash they are too close to the airbag when it deploys."

"You should sit as far away as you can from the steering wheel, at least 10 inches, and wear a seatbelt" to secure your position, says Ferguson. "If you're unbelted, you're not likely to be in a position for the airbag to help."

The results of the study were presented recently at the American Academy of Facial Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery Spring Meeting in California.

What To Do

Make sure you buckle up, even on a short trip. "It's always been a mystery to me why people don't wear [seatbelts]," Ferguson says. Even if you think you're a good driver, "the fact is, a lot of time you can't avoid an accident."

Read the latest on airbags and on-off switches from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving has compiled a list of seatbelt statistics.

For more HealthDay stories on car accidents and injuries, click here.

SOURCES: Interviews with Payman Simoni, M.D., a resident in the division of otolaryngology at the University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Medicine; Susan Ferguson, Ph.D., senior vice president for research, Insurance Institute for Highway Safety
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