Airbags are intended to save lives and limit injuries and, while they do this effectively by rapid deployment, they have the potential to cause injury as well. They exit the compartment they reside in at 100 miles per hour, which can be painful and cause injury, especially when the individual is not well restrained. Most injuries are minor–just minimal cuts or burns from friction. Sometimes bruising of the chest can occur.
Unfortunately, serious and even fatal accidental injuries can occur from airbag deployment if the driver or passenger fails to wear a seat belt or is extremely close to the airbag at the time of deployment. Even drivers who are restrained but sit close to the steering wheel can be severely injured as can unconscious drivers who happen to be slumped over the wheel. Some injuries occur when there are objects placed between the airbag and the driver or passenger that can be propelled with a great deal of force into the passenger or driver.
Unrestrained passengers or drivers suffer the greatest degree of injury from airbags. It is recommended that drivers sit with 10 inches of space between the person’s breastbone and the middle of the steering wheel. Kids under 12 should stay in the back seat if at all possible. Babies with rear-facing car seats should always be in the back seat and no forward-facing seats should be in the front seat.
Anyone in the front seat, sitting across from an airbag should be restrained properly so they don’t come in contact or near the air bag module just before deployment. This is what causes the severe or fatal injuries. This means that the lap belt portion of the belt should be across the person’s hips and the shoulder belt should be flat against the person’s chest. The person should sit upright with the feet on the floor. The seat should be adjusted as far to the rear as possible. This should hold true for the passenger and driver alike; however, the driver needs to be able to maneuver the gears of the car and cannot be too far back in the vehicle. Sometimes tilting back the seat allows for the ten inches away from the steering wheel to be accomplished.
Kids over 40 pounds should wear a proper restraint that includes a booster seat until they reach the age of 8 years or until they are 4 foot 9 inches tall. Many booster seats will work for kids who are up to 80 pounds. Pregnant women should definitely make sure that the lap belt fits over the pelvis and pelvic bones instead of the abdomen and should stay as far away from the air bag as possible.
Because of the position of the upper extremities with respect to the air bag, there is a risk of upper extremity injuries from the air bag. Minor sprains, cuts, abrasions and bruising can happen to the upper extremities from the air bag. In some cases there can be a fracture of the forearm bones or to the thumb, fingers or wrist. This happens because the driver is gripping the steering wheel and the passenger may put out their arm or arms in anticipation of a crash. This decreases the space between the airbag and the rider and can result in injury. The airbag can also fling the forearm and hand into the rearview mirror, the windshield or the instrument panel, resulting in injury.