Let’s review Media Rule #1: the world that you see, hear, and read about in the news is a distorted view of reality.
For instance: do you remember all the news reports about shark attacks a decade ago? The panic was so intense in mid-2001 that TIME magazine dubbed it the “Summer of the Shark.” But later studies revealed that the actual number of unprovoked shark attacks declined in 2001 (from 85 to 76), as did the number of fatal shark attacks (from 12 to 5).
The media distortion phenomenon is playing itself out once again with vehicle airbags. There’s some chatter and hubbub about how these automotive safety features are actually causing more injuries and problems than they solve. But what are the facts about airbags? To find out, let’s turn to the nation’s foremost authority on such matters.
That would be the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The group estimates that between 1990 and 2008, less than 300 people have been killed in low-speed crashes where the front seat airbags deployed (or about 15 per year).
Moreover, about 80% of those deaths were to people who were improperly restrained or belted. This category covers small children who were not properly situated in child restraint seats, or adults who were not wearing seat belts. Airbags are designed to augment the safety provided by seat belts, not to serve as a substitute for them.
Finally, about 90% of airbag-related deaths occurred in vehicles manufactured before 1998. There have been numerous improvements to the design and implementation of airbag safety systems since then. This includes side airbags – which, according to the NHTSA, were not responsible for a single death between 1995 and 2008.
Conversely, the NHTSA estimates that about 28,000 lives were saved due to the successful deployment of airbags over the same time period. The organization claims that people in the front seat of a vehicle with an airbag have about a 30% smaller chance of dying in a crash than they would without the safety system.
As you can see, the evidence is pretty overwhelming: airbags save almost 100 times more lives than they end, and the few airbag fatalities that do occur are usually in older vehicles, or because the victims were not correctly belted or restrained.
Of course, you rarely come across news stories which highlight how well airbags worked in a given wreck. But if there is any hint of a malfunctioning airbag in a motor vehicle collision, you can bet that the news media will let you know about it.
However, if a subsequent investigation rules out the airbag as a cause of death, those same news sources probably won’t inform you about that – or if they do, it will happen very quietly.