Death by airbag is nearly a thing of the past.
No adults and two children died from airbag-induced injuries in the United States in 2005, according to the latest National Highway Traffic Safety Administration crash statistics. The reduction of airbag-related deaths to near zero means that the industry's efforts to improve the safety of airbags have paid off.
To date, NHTSA estimates that airbags have saved 18,913 lives. Deaths resulting from injuries inflicted by deploying airbags peaked in 1997, when 53 people died, including 31 children. Altogether, 264 people have been killed because of injuries attributed to airbags, which became common in vehicles in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
The ensuing rash of deaths and injuries from airbag deployments persuaded federal safety regulators to rewrite safety rules. Congress passed safety legislation in 1997 to enhance airbag performance standards by requiring safety testing with a family of dummies.
Manufacturers responded with a new generation of lower-powered airbags, designed to deploy with less force and thus cause fewer deaths and injuries. Deaths have been declining ever since.
"Smart airbags could partly explain that, along with other changes introduced at the same time," said Jan Olsson, vice president of research at Autoliv Inc., the world's largest airbag supplier. Autoliv is based in Stockholm, Sweden.
Advanced frontal airbag technologies vary. Bags are basically designed to deploy with varying strength depending on the size and location of vehicle occupants and whether those occupants are wearing seat belts. Sensors determine the power of deployment.
NHTSA statistics show vehicles from recent model years cause few, if any, deaths from airbags. No deaths were reported from the 2002 and 2003 model years. One death was reported from the 2004 model year. Despite the new evidence, safety watchdogs say they still don't know what share of the credit advanced airbags can take for the big reduction in deaths and injuries.
Among those factors: more people now wear seat belts, and more children and infants are being put in the back seat.