SEATTLE, WASHINGTON. Air bags that expand instantaneously in front of the driver or front seat passenger in the event of a crash were first introduced in 1987. They were touted as a great improvement over seat belts and soon became obligatory, standard equipment in new vehicles. Early studies of their effectiveness in preventing fatalities gave disappointing results and some studies even found that they were detrimental. As a result the inflation pressure was lowered to reduce the risk of the bags actually harming people.
Researchers at the University of Washington have just released the results of a new study designed to
determine the effectiveness of air bags. They evaluated over 51,000 vehicle crashes that occurred in the
period 1990 to 2002 in the United States involving cars from model years 1987-2002. They found that
drivers or passengers in cars with air bags had an 8 per cent lower risk of dying in the crash or within 30
days of the crash (12 per cent reduced risk for women, 6 per cent for men). The risk was the same
independent of the inflation pressure of the bags and the bags only provided protection in frontal crashes.
Somewhat surprisingly, the researchers also found that using a seat belt offered far more protection than did
air bags. Drivers and passengers who were actually using their seat belt at the time of the crash had a 65
per cent lower risk of dying in the crash or within 30 days than did unbelted drivers. The conclusion from
this study is clear. Always use your seat belt whether or not your car is equipped with air bags.