A new investigation is raising some red flags over the safety of the airbags in newer cars. The people at risk? Drivers who buckle up.
During a crash, airbags should help save lives.
The latest generation of airbags is very smart. They can account for whether or not a driver is belted, how much he weighs, where he's sitting on the seat and the speed of impact.
Those factors can make the airbag deploy differently. It's sophisticated, computer technology that's been in all new cars since 2004 designed to maximize our safety. But a new study finds today's advanced airbags are not doing as good a job protecting belted drivers as older airbags.
"The risk of death in the vehicles with these airbags went up, especially for belted drivers," said Ann McCartt, Research Chief for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
In fact, it's 21 percent higher for belted drivers than those using older airbags. But it's no higher for passengers in the front seat. And the risk of death has declined for unbelted drivers.
What could explain the results? One possibility is the fact that automakers have to design airbags for unbelted drivers, in which case the airbag has to deploy with much more force. That may actually reduce the airbag's effectiveness for responsible, belted drivers.
"Airbags are designed to accommodate the people who don't buckle up" said McCartt.
In other words, the Insurance Institute argues, the study indicates drivers who wear seat belts - the vast majority - aren't getting the protection they could, because federal regulators require the auto industry to worry about the relatively few drivers who don't bother to buckle up.
Some experts, such as Raul Arbelaez of the Insurance Institute, agree that people who are belted deserve the best protection, and so the airbags should be designed with them in mind. But that may mean there won't be quite as much protection for the unbelted driver.
"That's absolutely right," said Arbelaez. "If we optimize the system for belted occupants, as a whole, there will be fewer serious injuries and fatalities.
An airbag failed to save Brooke Katz, who was wearing a seat belt when she died in a crash.
"A step backwards is not doing any of us any good," says Greg Katz, Brooke's husband. "I don't understand, you know, as technology improves, why we're going in the opposite direction."
The study is surprising also to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which sets rules for airbag testing.
"We do not have an explanation as to why the fatality rate for belted drivers went up," said the NHTSA.
NHTSA said it will continue to study the effectiveness and safety of airbags.