Road Rules: Airbag safety in vehicles


Question: I drive an Escalade. It’s a tank. My airbag went off in a collision and it almost killed me. I think I should have the option to disconnect it. It’s my car. Many other cars don’t have it. Why should I?

Answer: I’d like to start with a different question. Does the jurisdiction responsible for designing, building and maintaining a road also have an obligation to protect the people who use that road? If your answer is no, we’re going to disagree on what follows. But before you answer, let’s talk about roller coasters. 

It may not seem like it, but there are similarities between amusement parks and our transportation infrastructure. And I’m not talking about all the clowns you find in both places. Think of buying a car like paying for an entry ticket into Magic Mountain. It gives you access – now you can drive on the roads (or ride on the roller coasters). You also have an expectation that you’ll be safe. If the amusement park owners didn’t require riders to use the restraints on their rides or failed to maintain them and someone was injured or killed, you’d expect the park to take responsibility for that. 

It’s even more important to provide safe transportation than it is safe amusement rides. We entrust our government with building and maintaining our transportation infrastructure. And unlike a roller coaster, most people don’t have the option to not use it. If you think a roller coaster is scary, you can just decide not to ride it. How would your boss respond if you called work and said, “I can’t make it in today. The roads are too scary.”

Individually, you might want to reduce the safety of your vehicle because you misperceive the risk and protective factors, so consider the data. 

From 1990 to 2008 there were over 290 deaths caused by airbags. Ninety percent of those occurred before 1998, when airbag design was changed to make them safer, and over 80 percent of people killed were not wearing a seat belt or were wearing it improperly. Since 2009, when the Takata airbag recall began, there have been 19 deaths from Takata airbags. That sounds bad, and it is, because every one of those fatalities was a person who mattered. Compare that though, with the over 50,000 lives saved by airbags. If your vehicle is reasonably new, you always wear your seat belt, and you don’t have an outstanding airbag recall, your odds of being killed by your airbag are near zero. (And for the less than half a percent of drivers who are shorter than 4’6” or have a medical condition that necessitates disabling an airbag, you can submit a request to do so.)

Meanwhile, traffic fatalities are on the rise, both in Washington and across the U.S. Proper occupant protection, including seat belts and airbags, diminishes your risk. Airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29 percent, and when combined with a seat belt that increases to 61 percent.

I’ll also challenge your statement that many other cars don’t have airbags. They’ve been required since 1999, and given that the average age of a car on the road is about 12 years, only a tiny slice of cars without airbags are left.

Once we’re on a shared network of roads, we all work from a shared set of rules. You might not like every traffic law, but they exist to protect road users, and making optional a rule that saves thousands of lives would be an irresponsible action by the entities tasked with the safety of our roads. 

Doug Dahl is a manager with the Washington Traffic Safety Commission, Region 11 and publishes


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