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Airbags Can Be Lifesavers; They Can Also Be Lethal

Shorter drivers often sit too close to the steering wheel, exposing them to serious injury

By Perry J. Zucker

Airbags have saved countless lives in vehicle collisions, but they have also contributed to many serious injuries and deaths.

Many of those injuries and deaths had at least one common denominator – drivers were sitting too close to the steering wheel that contained the airbag.

A recent study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) of 35 airbag-related deaths found that 25 of the victims were women between 4-feet-7.92 inches and 5-feet-4.92 inches in height. Fifteen of them were unbelted, one was improperly belted and in two cases, belt usage could not be determined.

Eleven of the women had their seat positioned too close to the steering wheel, and two were believed to have made contact with the steering wheel when the airbag deployed.

About 5 percent of the United States female population sits closer than 9.84 inches from the steering wheel, studies have found. This puts the driver at a high risk of serious injuries or death from the inflating air bag as well as other vehicle components (windshields, dashboard, etc.).

What to do

Drivers can reduce the possibility of serious airbag-related injuries by properly adjusting their seat belts and sitting farther than 10 inches from the steering wheel, measured from the center of the steering wheel to their chest.

However, if the driver cannot operate the vehicle in a safe and comfortable manner, due to their physical dimensions, pedal extenders should be installed.

Pedal extenders are currently available as after-market equipment at auto parts stores and through numberous online retailers. They will soon be available as optional and, in some cases, as standard equipment on new cars, allowing shortrer drivers to sit farther back from the steering wheel and operate their vehicle more safely.


Perry J. Zuckeris a degreed engineer with offices in Philadelphia. He has testified as an expert witness in numerous trials and before legislative and regulatory bodies.

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