Far fewer children have suffered serious injuries in car crashes in which airbags were deployed since design changes in the bags were ordered five years ago, a study reports today.
Prompted by evidence that older airbags could injure or kill children, the government tightened safety requirements for the bags. ''It looks like we're moving in the right direction,'' says bioengineer Kristy Arbogast of Children's Hospital of Philadelphia. She'll release the first large study on how the improved airbags are affecting kids at the American Academy of Pediatrics meeting in New Orleans.
Overall, 9.5% of children were seriously injured in crashes that deployed newer airbags, down from 15% for those in cars with older bags. Serious injuries include concussions and more harmful brain traumas, fractures, internal organ injuries and disfiguring lacerations. Children ages 3 to 8 gained the most: 20% were badly injured in accidents with older bags vs. 8% if cars had ''second generation'' airbags that came out in 1998.
The redesigned bags hit passengers with less force, so they're not as likely to hurt children, says Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. ''We thought it would be an improvement, and it's great news to see this verified.''
Arbogast's study included 1,827 children whose parents filed insurance claims with State Farm, which financed the research
Although kids riding in passenger cars and minivans fared better with new bags, those in SUVs were no better off. Bags deploy less readily in SUVs, so SUV accidents may be more serious and hence cause worse injuries in kids, she says. There also were fewer SUV passengers in the study, which could make findings less reliable.
But SUVs do have design qualities that might cause the bags to hit kids harder, she says. SUVs have less of a front-end ''crush zone'' to absorb impact, causing the airbags to deploy with more force.
Despite the improved airbags, ''the safest place for children is still the back seat where bags won't hit them,'' says Vann Wilber of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group.
The lives of 1,700 children were saved from 1996 to 2001 because they were in the back rather than front seat during accidents, according to a study by the National Safety Council. Some states require the very young to sit in the rear seat if the vehicle has one.
Safer ''third generation'' bags, which were introduced in 2001, are in some cars and, by federal order, will be in all new cars by 2006, Wilber says. But there's a time lag in getting cars with safer bags on the road. ''About two-thirds of the fleet now have bags, and two-thirds of those are 'first generation,' so this is going to take a while,'' says Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council.
A serious-injury rate of nearly 10% for children ''is still a large public health problem,'' Arbogast says. ''And many older-design bags are filtering down to the used-car market, where they could hurt poorer kids riding in the front.''
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