Last updateWed, 18 Oct 2017 10am

On The Road

Buckling up still best safeguard, experts say

With air bag hazards exposed, seat belts provide best protection

People who won't buckle their seat belts are costing Americans millions of dollars in medical bills. A Transportation Department study released last year found it cost about $5,000 more for hospital care for people who didn't buckle up, compared with those who did.

At the same time, air bags, billed as the greatest road safety devise in decades, are suddenly objects of suspicion. They are blamed for nearly 50 deaths in America in the past three years, including at least 30 children.

Unlike seat belts, which have to be struggled into, air bags seemed ideal for four-wheel couch potatoes. In Canada, Germany and Britain, nearly everyone buckles up. But in the United States, barely 60 percent use seat belts, despite decades of propaganda and the passage of mandatory seat-belt laws in 49 of the 50 states. So federal rule makers decreed that the air bags should be big enough and work fast enough to cushion even the largest unbuckled male.

When an air bag comes into action, it bursts out of the steering wheel or dashboard at close to 200 mph. A research note from General Motors in 1969 remarked that "a small child close to an instrument panel from which an air cushion is deployed may be severely injured or killed."

That is precisely what is happening. But air bags deserve only part of the blame. Virtually all those killed were not wearing seat belts. The Transportation Department analysis also confirmed government studies showing that belt use saves lives and estimated that two-thirds of those killed could have survived if they buckled up.

The study looked at 879,670 auto accidents in seven states from 1991 to 1993. Accident victims who wore their seat belts had average inpatient hospital costs of $9,004, compared with $13,937 for people who failed to buckle up.

Transportation Department Secretary Federico Pena said, "these are not estimates. They are real numbers, and I don't know of an easier way to cut health care costs than to buckle up."

Getting back to air bags, motorists can now legally go to a mechanic and have their air bags disconnected, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. For the benefit of parents who will not do that, carmakers will have to put a yellow sticker on the car's sun visor telling them to put their children in the back seat.

Gradually, carmakers are switching to "de-powered" air bags which inflate a little more slowly. Two years down the road, car makers will be required to come up with a new generation of "smart" air bags.

The United States averages 40,000 highway fatalities a year. Pena has warned of the potential for an increase because of the passage of the National Highway System Act, which allowed states to raise speed limits and drop helmet laws.

Analysis confirms government studies, having an air bag on your car and not using seat belts doesn't improve you chances very much in a wreck. When the seat belt is used, it is estimated that two-thirds of those killed when not using belts could have survived if they had buckled up.

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