The airbag turns 20 this month. On July 11, 1984, Elizabeth Dole signed an order requiring all vehicles to have driver's side air bags or automatic seat belts by 1989 and passenger-side bags soon after. The government estimates that 15,000 have been saved by air bags since then, though 242 deaths—many of them children or small women—are blamed on air bags.
Automakers paid out millions to settle air bag lawsuits and began installing less forceful devices in 1997. That action, combined with increased seat belt use and placement of infants in back seats, led to a rapid reduction in deaths. In 2003, NHTSA confirmed only six deaths due to airbags.
Here are some air bag safety tips, from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration:
Air bags can deploy at well over 100 mph, putting drivers at risk of injury and even death. Some ways to avoid injury:
-- Drivers and passengers should always wear seat belts. The combination of an air bag and a seat belt can reduce the risk of death by up to 83 percent.
-- Drivers should have at least 10 inches between their breastbone and the center of the steering wheel.
-- Children under 12 should always ride in the back seat with a seat belt.
-- Never put a rear-facing infant seat in the front passenger seat with an air bag. The seat sits too close to the place where the air bag will deploy.
-- Drivers and passengers should put their seats back as far as possible.
-- Never place objects on or near the air bag module, as they could cause serious injuries if the air bag deploys.
-- If drivers are unable to sit far enough away from the steering wheel or if they must place children or small adults in the front passenger seat, they may be able to obtain an on/off switch for the air bag. Drivers should contact the vehicle manufacturer or dealer and get a permission form from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Pickups, convertibles and other vehicles with little or no back seat should already have on/off switches.