Air Bags Saving Lives, but Injuries Linger: Study
Mon May 13, 1:32 PM ET
By E. J. Mundell

MONTREAL (Reuters Health) - While driver seat air bags are helping to prevent fatal trauma to the head, neck and vertebrae, drivers who survive frontal crashes often face long battles against painful, debilitating injuries to the arms, legs and feet, according to researchers. They believe improvements in car design could reduce the number and severity of these injuries.


"Air bags are keeping us alive but at the same time we're not finished," explained researcher Joseph Kufera of the National Study Center for Trauma and EMS at the University of Maryland in Baltimore. He and co-researcher Shiu M. Ho presented the findings here Sunday at the 6th World Conference on Injury Prevention and Control.

The Baltimore researchers examined hospital and police report data on nearly 2,400 Maryland seat belt-wearing drivers of non-commercial vehicles involved in frontal crashes between 1997-1999. In 407 of these cases, driver-side air bags deployed upon impact.

They found that drivers protected by air bags had "significant decreases" in the incidence of the most fatal types of injuries--trauma or fracture to the head, neck, chest and vertebrae, compared to drivers without air bags.

But rates of fracture to the arms, legs or feet were higher in drivers who survived a crash when air bags were deployed, versus those who survived crashes without air bag deployment. In part, this is because air bags are simply more likely to deploy in more serious crashes. "Before there was an air bag these people were dying from chest injuries," Kufera explained in an interview with Reuters Health.

Air bag deployment can cause fractures to the arms, Kufera noted. But he stressed that air bags rarely cause debilitating lower extremity fractures. Instead, injuries to drivers' legs and feet in frontal crashes typically occur when the "toe-pan"--that area of the vehicle floor just under the brake and accelerator--impacts on the heel and lower leg.

"So what we need to look for now is some way to make that area a little more user friendly," Kufera said. "Some car companies are looking at air bags or some other change in the toe-pan area, near the feet. Redesigning it, or having small air bags in that area--that's something that still has to be looked at."

The bottom line is that even though air bags and seat belts are saving lives, the road back from injury can be long and hard for those who survive. Kufera said another ongoing study is finding that many survivors of frontal collisions are still having walking problems up to one year after the crash, as well as lingering depression and anxiety linked to the slow rehabilitation process. "We're keeping people alive," he said, "but at the same time they're having very long, costly injuries."


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