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"What’s the last year before airbags were required in cars?" It wasn’t a trivia question. The person asking wanted to know because, she said, she wanted to buy such a car to protect her children from the risk of airbags.

"I know lots of children have been killed by airbags," she said, "Airbags go off for no reason at all. And I hear it is getting even worse with the new side airbags so I want an old car because it is safer."

Wow! Where to start with that one.

First, grant her that her intentions – to be safer in a car - are motherly and admirable. And then line up some facts and see if her half-truths can be made whole and her misconceptions readjusted.

Old Cars Are Safer. Not.

Up front let’s deal with the matter of old cars being safer for whatever reason. In the decade that airbags have been commonly installed, cars have improved so much in braking, handling, crush-zones, body and chassis rigidity and other attributes relating to safety, both passive and active, that choosing an older car on safety grounds is nonsensical.

As for airbags killing "lots of children":

  • Fewer than 100 deaths, mostly children but some small adults too, have been attributed to the deployment of airbags. Safety experts say that airbags save 20 lives for every one that has been lost.
  • Most manufacturers use airbags that do not deploy as rapidly at such a tremendous initial force. Previously the model that determined an airbag’s adequacy was its ability to restrain an unbelted 190-pound man. The modified airbags are safer for smaller people.
  • Many cars now have "smart" airbags that sense the weight of the person in the passenger seat and turn the airbag on and off accordingly or deploy with less force.
  • Safety guidelines (and some laws) say that no child under 12 should occupy a seat with a frontal airbag. The safest place is in the rear seat toward the center. (Of course never put a rear-facing child seat in front.)
  • In sports cars and pickup trucks with no rear seat the passenger side airbag in most new vehicles can be deactivated (by key or switch) when a child or small adult is seated there.

Airbag Deployment

As for airbags going off "for no reason at all":

  • Some such incidents have occurred with airbags deploying during slow-speed collisions and even going off in a parked car with no one around. However, these are anomalies.
  • Anyone occupying the front passenger or driver’s seat should sit as far away from the airbag as possible. (Recommendation: a minimum of 12 inches.) Extremely short drivers can have the airbag turned off at their dealership.
  • Drivers should not drive with their arms crossing the airbag (two hands placed at 10 and 2 or 9 and 3 on the clock face of the wheel is what’s proper.) An airbag deploying with a driver’s arm draped across it may well break the arm and also hurl it with tremendous force at the driver’s face.
  • Passengers who like to prop their bare feet on the dashboard should contemplate the likelihood of broken legs if the airbag deploys and therefore find a new riding position.

Now, side bags

As for "it’s even worse with new side airbags":

  • Tiny tots allowed to sleep with their heads resting on the side windows in the backseat can be at risk from the deployment of side airbags. Place the child seat in the center and find either inflatable or foam headrests for nodding little heads.

And more about airbags:

  • Everyone should wear a properly adjusted seatbelt. Airbags are called SRS, "supplemental restraint system." They add to the protection of a seatbelt, never substitute for it. Only seatbelts can protect wearers in the "second collision" after an airbag has deployed and deflated and the car hits a second or third object or rolls down an incline.
  • Short drivers, who cannot sit far enough away from the airbag, should look into pedal extensions that allow them to move back in their seats. (The Ford Taurus comes with easy-to-operate pedal extenders.) For information on fitting a car to short drivers call the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association at 813-932-8566 for a shop near you.

My advice to my worried questioner was to buy a car with the latest technology in airbags and adjustable-height seatbelts with self-tensioners. Keep her kids in the back, make sure everyone is belted and know about the risks of airbags.

And, oh yes, don’t hit anything.

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