Airbag Study Shows Huge Variation In Safety Records

July 3, 1997

Safety experts urge government to tell public which airbags are most dangerous

Washington, D.C. ... Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety today released a study revealing significant differences in the safety records of passenger-side airbag designs. The study analyses the auto models which have had the highest fatality rates in airbag crashes, and concludes that some cars are fitted with airbags much more dangerous than others.

The study has been released as the public waits for a government ruling about whether to allow consumers to turn off their airbags, a proposal which the safety advocates, auto manufacturers and insurers oppose. "This study shows some airbags are much better than others," said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. "Consumers will want to know which type they have in their cars before deciding whether to turn them off," she said.

The analysis shows that cars equipped with top-mounted, vertically-deploying airbags (those that are installed at the top of the dash and inflate by crawling up the windshield) have had no fatalities. These include several models made by Honda and Nissan, and the 1996-1997 Ford Taurus. The study also found that cars with airbags which deploy horizontally (by inflating directly out into the occupant's chest or face), and which have an inadequate safety zone have had 43 passenger-side airbag-related deaths. These include Chrysler's Dodge Caravan; Ford's Aspire, Contour, Escort and Mustang; and General Motors Geo Metro. These numbers show a statistically significant difference in performance based o­n registered vehicle years.

The safety experts called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to provide full information to consumers on which airbags are the safest. "Our study suggests some designs reduce fatalities, but the government needs to tell the public exactly which cars have the safest airbags. NHTSA should provide the public with details o­n which airbag sensors perform the best, and how fast different airbags inflate." said Clarence Ditlow, the study's author and Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety.

The safety advocates urged the government to make public a more comprehensive comparison of airbag safety designs, including the rates of inflation, type of deployment, the sensor performance, and the speed triggering inflation. The Center for Auto Safety yesterday filed a lawsuit under the Freedom of Information Act asking for NHTSA's records o­n airbag crash tests by make and model.

The advocates also recommended that the government require auto manufacturers to reveal exactly which airbag designs are installed in their cars and to supply fatality ratings by make and model.

This type of information has been requested by NHTSA before, but the manufacturers have generally not supplied it. In November 1995, for example, companies were asked to details of the airbags they were selling. These included the fold patterns, tethering and venting of the airbag, the shape and size of the module opening and the airbag's deployment path. Major manufacturers including Volvo, Volkswagen and Honda did not respond with any data. Others, like Ford, GM and Chrysler supplied o­nly general information about their designs.

"NHTSA should produce a safety rating of key airbags designs. People have a right to know the safety record of what they're buying," said Claybrook.

An anticipated ruling from NHTSA would allow consumers to deactivate their airbags permanently, or permit them to have switches in their cars to turn their airbags o­n/off . "A broad deactivation would be the wrong signal to send to the public," said Ditlow. "Airbags have saved thousands of lives already. The problem is that some have been very badly designed, and the public needs to know which o­nes."

In addition to vertically-deploying air bags, the report recommends manufacturers adopt technology now in use, specifically raising the deployment threshold o­n the passenger side to 15-mph (change in velocity), better sensors that do not trigger below the threshold speed or late into the crash, deep-dish steering wheels to move the airbag away from the driver, and airbag compartmentalization and fold patterns so deploying air bags that encounter out-of-position occupants deploy away from them.

The safety advocates have for some time been urging the manufacturers and NHTSA to adopt dual-stage inflation airbags which are depowered in low-speed crashes and retain their power in higher-speed crashes.