Air bags can injure forearms, hands, face; but most injuries are mild

March 31, 1997

ANN ARBOR—Air bags harm nearly two-thirds of drivers in crashes in which an air bag inflates, but most of the injuries are minor cuts, scrapes and bruises, says a University of Michigan researcher.

“As more vehicles have been equipped with steering-wheel air bags, crashes involving their deployment have occurred with increasing frequency,” says Donald F. Huelke of the U-M Transportation Research Institute (UMTRI). “Most of the resulting injuries are abrasions, contusions and small lacerations of the upper extremity, face and torso areas.”

In his analysis of 540 “air bag” crashes, Huelke found that 38 percent of drivers suffered forearm and hand injuries and 32 percent received facial wounds. More serious injuries are rare, he adds, with 2 percent of drivers sustaining eye injuries from air bag deployment and 3 percent suffering forearm and hand fractures, either by direct contact from the deploying air bag or by the air bag flinging drivers’ forearms and hands into the instrument panel or windshield.

According to Huelke, gender and stature have little bearing on the likelihood of forearm or hand injuries, but women and shorter drivers are more likely to receive facial wounds from an inflating air bag.

Nearly 42 percent of the female drivers in the sample sustained facial injuries from a deploying air bag, compared with about 24 percent of the men. Likewise, half of the drivers under 5’5″ received facial injuries, while only about 18 percent of drivers 5’11” or taller suffered facial wounds.

Huelke says that drivers who wear safety belts are no more likely to be protected from facial injuries than drivers who don’t.

“This is probably due to the fact that the deploying air bag contacts the driver’s face before the lap-shoulder belt has its full effect in limiting the driver’s forward movement,” he says. “Also many drivers, particularly those of short stature, are in the air-bag deployment envelope before the crash.”

Finally, Huelke says that untethered air bags, which are balloon-like when fully inflated, are more likely to cause facial injuries (44 percent vs. 27 percent) than tethered air bags, which have a flatter surface, but are no more dangerous to a driver’s forearms and hands than tethered air bags.

UMTRI researchers Lawrence W. Schneider, Ryan Gilbert and Matthew P. Reed collaborated with Huelke on the research.

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