Air bags alone aren't good enough.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Jul 01, 1991

Dear Tom and Ray:

In one of your recent columns, you discussed the subject of air bags, and I though your comments were very accurate, and the sort of thing the motoring public needs to hear. However, I wish you had emphasized even more strongly that air bags alone aren't good enough; that they have to be used along with seat belts. A lot of people think that an air bag alone renders vehicle occupants immune to death or serious injury, but it's just not true.
In my role as a reporter, I went to the scene of an accident in which a Mercedes 190E with a driver's side air bag made a left turn into the path of a pickup truck, was brutally broad-sided, and then went front-end-first into a very solid rock wall. The driver, who was not using his seat belt, suffered serious head injuries and was evacuated to a hospital where doctors weren't at all optimistic about his chances. By some miracle, he survived, although he's never going to be the same man he used to be.
A relative of the driver, who was considering suing Mercedes, contacted me a few days later to ask if the police had given me any indication as to why the air bag hadn't deployed. I explained to her that the air bag had worked exactly as it was supposed to. But in order for it to have any effect, the driver had to have been in the driver's seat. Since his seat belt wasn't fastened, the initial impact with the truck threw him into the passenger seat so that when the Mercedes hit the wall, there was nothing to prevent him from being thrown against the windshield.
Not long after that, I had to write a story about a young man driving a Lincoln Town Car with both driver and passenger air bags who had completely lost control on a winding road. He mowed down a row of utility poles, and was finally stopped by a sturdy tree. In spite of the fact that, again, the air bags seem to have performed as designed, both the driver and his sister, who was riding in the passenger seat, were killed.
Undoubtedly, the bags popped when the car hit the first utility pole, but had deflated by the time the Town Car made con??tact with the tree. As in the case of the Mercedes, seat belts were not being worn in this vehicle. Had the occupants been wearing seat belts, they might had survived the final impact.
These two tragedies illustrate that an air bag alone is no guarantee of safety in a serious crash. It has to be used with a seat belt. Please remind people.

RAY: Gee, Chuck, I feel a little bit like Ann Landers, but all I can say is thanks for a great letter.

TOM: You're absolutely right. Wearing your seat belt is the single best thing you can do to protect yourself while riding in a car. When you add an air bag to that, you further increase your chances of surviving a serious accident. But without the seat belt, the air bag alone may not be enough to save you. Thanks for the first hand information.

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