Air Bag Injury Risk Linked to Height

Study: Air Bags May Increase Risk of Injury in Crash for Short, Tall Passengers

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on May 16, 2007

May 16, 2007 -- In a crash, automobile air bags may raise the odds of serious injury for short or tall front-seat passengers, a new study shows.

The study comes from Craig Newgard, MD, of Oregon Health & Science University. He's due to present his findings Friday in Chicago at the annual meeting of the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine.

Newgard analyzed injury statistics for 1995-2005 from a motor vehicle crash database.

The database shows that during the years studied, 52,552 drivers and 14,732 passengers were involved in crashes.

Most of those people weren't seriously injured, but 2.5% of the drivers and 2.6% of the passengers sustained serious injuries to any part of the body.

Newgard reviewed data on the drivers' and passengers' height and weight, air bags, and 10 factors about the crash.

He found that air bags were "modestly protective" for front-seat passengers of medium height, which he defined as being between 5 foot 3 inches tall to 5 foot 11 inches tall.

However, Newgard writes that "air bags appear to increase the risk of injury for large- and small-stature adults."

Newgard calculates that for drivers taller than 6 foot 3 inches, air bags were associated with a 5% greater risk of serious injury. He also estimates that for drivers shorter than 4 foot 11 inches, air bags were associated with a 4% increase in the risk of serious injury.

Weight didn't affect the results, Newgard notes.

Distance From Air Bag

Newgard's study doesn't provide information on how far the drivers and passengers were seated from the air bags in the crashes.

Distance from the air bag is the most important factor in preventing air bag injuries, according to background information on the web site of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"There is no precise height and weight at which an individual is considered to be at risk" from air bags, says the NHTSA. "The primary determinant as to whether an individual will be injured by a deploying air bag is the distance from which the individual is seated from the air bag."

The NHTSA notes that there is no precise distance guaranteed to avoid air bag injury since all air bags are unique and deploy with different forces.

The NHTSA's advice:

  • Wear your seatbelt.
  • Sit as far from the air bag as possible to allow the air bag to deploy.
  • Short drivers should move the driver's seat back and tilt the seat back slightly to allow space between the driver's chest and the steering wheel.
  • Drivers should refrain from leaning forward.
  • To the extent possible, drivers should hold steering wheels from the side, so that their arms aren't in the way of the air bag.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Society for Academic Emergency Medicine's annual meeting, Chicago, May 16-19, 2007. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: "Questions and Answers Regarding Air Bags."

© 2007 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved. View privacy policy and trust info