Airbags give new meaning to the phrase "mixed blessing." Federal safety regulators claim the devices have saved nearly 20,000 lives but concede that they have also killed hundreds of children and adults.

Airbags have killed 264 people since regulators began keeping a record of the deaths and injuries; 1997 was the worst year for airbag-related deaths and injuries when 53 people died including 31 children.

Equally serious are cases in which the airbag does not deploy as expected.

During a five-month investigation, examined more than 160 complaints submitted by consumers whose airbags did not deploy in accidents. Main conclusion: most failures occurred in used cars which had most likely been involved in previous accidents without the current owners' knowledge. There were far fewer failures in newer original-owner cars, lending credence to experts' contention that airbags in today's newer cars are extremely reliable.

Who's to blame? In many cases, it's unscrupulous rebuilders who fix up and sell cars that have been wrecked or damaged in floods, usually neglecting to repair or replace the airbags. The insurance companies make billions per year selling totaled cars to rebuilders and must share a large portion of the blame.

Most important to note: Air bags are not intended to work alone. They are intended to work as a supplement to your seat belt. If you are not wearing a seat belt at the time of an accident, the airbag will not help you.

Also, experts note, airbags are not designed to deploy in every accident. The fact that a car receives extensive damage and occupants suffer significant injury does not necessarily mean the bag should have deployed. An airbag deploying in a relatively minor accident can do more harm than good.

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