Q: If airbags are so safe, why do I have the option to turn mine off?
Ask The Expert: Oh boy. This is a topic that falls somewhere on the endless controversy spectrum between the safety of vaccinations and "9/11 Was An Inside Job". But The Expert has never been one to cower in the face of controversy, so here we go.
There was a time when automobile safety meant that one would stop after two martinis before getting behind the wheel of a Studebaker. But thanks to a few decades of rabble-rousing activists, outraged moms and genuinely innovative engineering and research, modern passenger vehicles are about as safe as any machine ever built. And yet they remain incredibly deadly machines at the same time. We may no longer be impaled on steering wheel columns or lacerated by shattered windshield glass, but automobiles are still thousands of pounds of steel and aluminum propelled at high speeds through populated areas. Unless we find a way to bend the laws of physics (and believe me, The Expert is always trying) there is no such thing as a perfectly safe automobile. But there are certainly ways to improve the odds.
The single greatest auto safety innovation of all time is still probably the seatbelt. (Trivia time: the modern standard three-point seatbelt was actually the invention of those meatball-lovin', blonde-bikini-team havin', allen-wrench-furniture-assemblin' socialists over at Volvo.) And yet the seatbelt, after it became more widely available in the 1960's, was nearly as controversial as airbags are today. Many were concerned about being strangled by a seatbelt, or trapped in a wrecked vehicle rather than being "thrown clear". But the truth is that even today, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, nearly half of all auto fatalities could be prevented by just the use of a seatbelt alone.
Airbags did not become widely available until the 1980's and weren't federally mandated safety equipment until the late 1990's. The first generation of airbags were extremely powerful, often to a fault. Reports of people being seriously injured or killed by airbag deployment made the rounds of the news media in the 1990's. Most times the victims were either seated too close to the airbag or they were children or small-statured adults whose heads were directly in the line of fire, so to speak.
The second generation of airbags were the so-called "depowered" airbags which deployed with far less force. It wasn't until the most recent "advanced" third generation of airbags, which use a sophisticated sensor array to deploy in the right way for the particular type of collision they are involved in, that the number of injuries and fatalities attributed to airbags has dropped significantly.
So the on/off switch for your airbag usually dates from the period before the advent of airbags that know when to deploy or not and with how much force. Even with advances in airbag technology, however, children are still safest in the rear seats of a vehicle.
It shoud be understood, as well, that frontal airbags are designed to work in concert with, not instead of, seatbelts, and that together they can save many lives a year. In fact, since the NHTSA began keeping records a few decades ago, only 234 deaths have been directly attributed to airbags, while the agency estimates in that same time well over 20,000 lives have been saved. So despite what the critics say, you're better off with them than without them.
For further information on the safe use of airbags and other useful auto safety information, visit safecar.gov.
And remember, the easiest way to impress a Swedish bikini model is to buckle your seatbelt.