Air bags work, but they can hurt Some bags deliver a 211-mph punch

November 25, 1992|By David Everett and Joann Muller | David Everett and Joann Muller,Knight-Ridder News Service

Stephen Zahra had no chance to react when his 1990 Dodge Shadow hit a chuckhole, blew a tire and crashed head-on into a concrete barrier on a highway exit ramp in Detroit.

His bumper crumpled and his air bag shot from the steering wheel, slapping him in the face at a speed exceeding 90 mph.

Mr. Zahra, 31, of Detroit walked away from the crash 2 1/2 years ago without broken bones or bloodshed.

But today he needs glasses to read, because the bag scratched his right eyeball when it hit him. Mr. Zahra accepts the fact that his vision might never return to normal, but he doesn't blame the air bag. It probably saved him from worse injury.

"Even though I got banged up by mine, I'd still prefer to have one," he said.

Mr. Zahra's story shows the protective power -- and a surprising side effect -- of one of the most important safety gadgets in automotive history. Air bags can sometimes hurt people. But the lives they save and the crippling injuries they prevent far outweigh the danger.

This year, for the first time, a majority of new cars sold in the United States are equipped with air bags. In a few years, every new car will have one.

To explore the effectiveness of air bags, the Detroit Free Press examined thousands of documents, interviewed more than 100 crash survivors, engineers and safety experts, and spurred the first government study of air bag injury rates.

The key findings:

* Air bags work. They've saved hundreds of lives, and trigger properly over 99 percent of the time.

* One-third of motorists involved in air bag deployments are hurt by the bag. Most injuries are minor scrapes, bruises or burns, but air bags also have been blamed for some broken bones -- and even a few deaths.

* The auto industry's long campaign against air bag laws delayed use of the lifesaving device.

* Automatic seat belts, a substitute for air bags in millions of cars, have design problems that discourage people from using them properly.

The Detroit Free Press also found that consumers have widespread misunderstandings about air bags and automatic seat belts, and the automobile industry itself is partly to blame.

Long touted as a lifesaving device, air bags have gained a soft-as-a-pillow reputation from advertisements.

What the commercials don't accurately portray is the tremendous force required to inflate an air bag in time to cushion a crash impact.

Ignited by a small pyrotechnic reaction inside the steering column, the bag is filled instantly with harmless nitrogen gas.

The bag inflates and deflates incredibly fast -- in a fraction of a second, or less than the blink of an eye.

That's why doctors say some elderly or intoxicated people could be vulnerable to eye injuries from air bags -- they have slower reflexes and might not have enough time to instinctively blink before their face hits the bag.

A government study of several typical bags found that the front surface of an inflating air bag moves at an average of 144 mph. The deployment speed of a 1990 Acura Legend air bag topped out at 211 mph.; the slowest bag among nine tested was a 1990 Oldsmobile Toronado, which went 98 mph.

Hit with such power, motorists have a 1-in-3 chance of being hurt by their air bag, according to the government analysis of accident statistics.

All but a handful of those injuries have been minor scrapes or bruises. In rare incidents, broken bones or serious eye injuries can occur.

Even rarer, the Detroit Free Press has identified four accidents in which air bags appear to have contributed to a motorist's death. In most of the fatal crashes, the drivers were too close to their air bag and they suffered major chest injuries.

But these injury reports are dwarfed by the growing body of data on the benefits of bags. They had prevented 15,000 moderate to serious injuries and saved an estimated 320 lives by the end of 1991, according to government and private studies. And the numbers are rising rapidly.

"Some people got polio from the polio vaccine," said Dr. Donald Huelke, a University of Michigan researcher who has spent three decades investigating injuries from traffic accidents. "Does that mean you drop the vaccine? Of course not. If anyone is going to be seriously injured from an air bag, it's a long shot."

"I think it's well worth the exchange of facial abrasions for having your brain still working," said Dr. Gregory Larkin, an emergency physician at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak, Mich., who treated Mr. Zahra and others for air bag-related injuries, and who has begun monitoring similar cases throughout the country.

Air bags are "not a panacea," he said, "but they're helping."

More research is needed to determine how air bags affect people of different ages, heights, weights and sexes, said Elaine Petrucelli, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine, a physicians group.

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