NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Pre-1998 Air Bags Injure Women In Low Speed Collisions

October 10, 2000

In low-speed front-end collisions, air bags are more likely to injure drivers than protect them, says a new study in the American Journal of Public Health. Moreover, women and small men are at risk at speeds far higher than taller men.

The study, conducted at the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, analyzed crash data involving the type of front-end collisions for which driver-side air bags are designed to deploy and provide protection. The data covered collisions of cars -- but not pick up trucks or sports utility vehicles -- from model years 1986 through 1997, looking at crashes in which the bags actually deployed.

Among the findings:

  • For men in general, air bags were more likely to cause injury than prevent it in crashes under 8 miles per hour.
  • But women were more likely to be hurt than protected -- or the severity of their injuries was increased -- in crashes under 32 mph.
  • For example, the net air bag effect on "severe" injuries among female drivers ranged from a 10 percent protective effect in crashes around 43 mph to a 70 percent increase in injuries in crashes below 2 mph.
  • By contrast, the effect on "severe" injuries among male drivers ranged from a 35 percent protective effect in crashes around 40 mph to a 10 percent increase below 3 mph.

The results are consistent with previous research that found air bags reduced fatalities in collisions by 19 percent -- when drivers also wore seat belts.

Starting in 1997, the federal government changed its air-bag tests to let the industry produce softer air bags that are less likely to injure children and small adults, particularly in low-speed crashes.

Source: Maria Segui-Gomez, "Driver Air Bag Effectiveness by Severity of the Crash," American Journal of Public Health, October 2000.


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