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I have read and been told that the use of airbags can cause severe damage in case of accident, specially with children and short adults.

However, I would like to know to what extent it can increase your chances of dying and how you can determine if you should activate or deactivate certain airbags depending on the people traveling in a vehicle equipped with this technology.

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you definitely should be wearing a seatbelt –  ratchet freak May 22 '12 at 19:22
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It's safer than seat belt alone, but it is not a substitute for a seat belt. –  user7192 May 22 '12 at 19:34
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Both. Of course. They do kill a few people (usually the light, the frail and those not wearing their seatbelts), but they save many more than they kill. –  dmckee Sep 13 '12 at 17:52
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There is clear guidance from manufacturers that airbags should be disabled when the seat is occupied by children in child-seats. So, yes they are dangerous, but the danger is readily avoidable. –  matt_black Jan 12 '13 at 17:28
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2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Airbags are safe for the intended target person but can be dangerous for others, such as infants and children.

There have been over 800,000 air bag deployments, saving over 1,500 lives. To date, completed investigations of air bag crashes show that many of the air bag injuries were due to the driver sitting too close to the air bag module or passengers riding unbuckled or incorrectly secured. The latter includes infants in rear-facing child safety seats that are placed in the front seat or small children incorrectly placed in a lap/shoulder safety belt.

Air bags save lives. Air bags in passenger cars and light trucks prevented an estimated 1,136 fatalities from 1986 to 1995, with another 600 saved in 1996. Once these life saving devices are equipped in all cars, it is estimated that 3,000 lives will be saved each year.

Driver-Side Air Bags Driver-side air bags reduce the overall fatality risk of car drivers by a statistically significant 11 percent.

In other words, a fleet of cars equipped with driver-side air bags will have 11 percent fewer driver fatalities than the same cars would have had if they did not have air bags. Still, air bags can be dangerous to short stature adults sitting too close to the air bag module, especially when unbuckled.

Passenger-Side Air Bags Passenger-side air bags reduce the overall fatality risk of car passengers age 13 and older by a statistically significant 13.5 percent.

It is estimated that an additional 88 right front passengers ages 13 and older would have died from 1986 to 1995 if passenger cars or light trucks had not been equipped with passenger-side air bags.

To date only one passenger, a 98-year-old female, has died as the result of an adult passenger-side air bag-related injury.

Taken from here, which reports the NHTSA as its source for these claims, though I found the NHTSA site a bit difficult to navigate to find anything like this. I am not sure whether the to date part means some time in 1995/96 or more recently, the updated date did not cite a year and the latest copyright date was 2004.

I would assume that these numbers have gotten better in recent years simply due to better airbag technology (like cars that automatically disable airbags based on weight) and awareness of proper usage and precautions.

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Air bags in the USA and Europe have quite different specifications and so stats from the two shouldn't be mixed. emj.bmj.com/content/19/6/490.full –  Nick Sep 13 '12 at 16:10
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This medical article has an excellent summary of the benefits and dangers of airbag use in the EU and USA.

USA airbags have had to be designed to protect both the belted and unbelted occupant. To achieve this, airbags inflate rapidly (50 ms) under high pressure to a volume of 70 litres. In contrast, UK (and Western European) fitted airbags are only designed to protect a belted occupant and inflate to 30 litres within the same time. This is in part attributable to seat belt use in the UK and Europe, which is estimated at 88%–91% (dependent on sex and age, R Cuerden, et al, IRCOBI Conference, 2001).

This means that the effects of a USA vs EU airbag is quite different. The US airbags will save the life of an unbelted adult, but can cause injuries in the process, especially to children.

Death

Many of the injuries reported above have been fatal. The only case report of a fatality in the UK was as recently as 2000. With the larger airbags in the United States, deaths are much commoner.

So it seems the risks depend on which type of airbag you have. In the USA the risks seem to outweigh the benefits for children, but not adults:

data from the US that suggest that passenger airbags are not only associated with cases of child fatalities, but also that the protective effects of the bags in terms of lives saved is outweighed by the lives lost. However, for each of the child lives lost by passenger airbags in the USA, 5–10 adults are saved: this figure is 75 lives saved to one life lost for driver's side airbags.

So in summary, airbags are beneficial to adults, but the USA airbags are dangerous for children, who should not ride in the passenger seat.

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Out of curiousity, if you are a car-owner in the USA that regularly wears a seat-belt, is it possible to adjust the air-bag to be safer? –  Oddthinking Jan 12 '13 at 15:58
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