23 July 2013

Unintended Consequences -- Airbags and Babies

 Airbags in cars are a good thing, right?  They save lives.  The U.S. National Highway Safety Administration estimates that out of over three million airbag deployments from 1990 to 2000, some sixty-four hundred lives have been saved by the little poofy pushback pillows.  And they figure countless injuries have been prevented.  So all good, right?  Airbags are the greatest invention since the waffle iron, or lip gloss, or monkey bars.

Well not, exactly.

What if I told you that in that same ten-year period, five thousand people lost their lives to airbags?  Would that temper your admiration?  Well it shouldn't because I'm lying.  Airbags didn't kill that many.  Not even a tenth of that.  I'm exaggerating for effect to get you to consider that every good is not always good for all people.

One hundred and seventy-five people were killed by airbags in the decade from '90 to '00.  Most of them were children.  About seventy were adults.  That means airbags are saving 36 lives for every one they take.  I guess I can live with that.  But what if it were two lives or three lives taken for every thirty-six lives saved? At what ratio does it cease to be a benefit?  What if ten people die so forty can live?  At what point do you dig around under your dash and and start pulling out wires to disable the thing?

Here's another little problem with the "passive" restraints.  They can kill directly and indirectly.  Is the term "hyperthermia" familiar to you?  It means "high temperature".  It is just the opposite of hypothermia, or low temperature. 

What does high temperature have to do with airbags?  Do the expanding gasses get hot enough to be fatal?  No, though there have been cases where the hot exhaust from the bags deflating after deployment burn the hands, and ruptured bags have caused facial burns. 

No, the deaths are from children left captured in their car seats in automobiles that are parked outside.  Mostly the children are forgotten by a parent or caregiver and when the interior of the car heats up they die of heatstroke.

What does this have to do with airbags?  Aren't the irresponsible parents to blame?

Airbags are partially to blame because since the front passenger bag was introduced in the nineties, drivers have been urged to move their kids to the back seat, and it is a lot easier to forget them back there.  Out of sight, out of mind.

In a three-year period before the passenger bags became popular (1990-1992) there were only eleven known deaths of children in cars due to heatstroke.

In a three-year period recently (2009-2011) known deaths due to heatstroke in cars climbed to one-hundred and eighteen.  That's a ten-fold increase.  And it is due to the kiddies, almost universally, being placed in the back seat for their own safety.

Keep in mind that these deaths are nearly all little kids, three years old and younger.  They are trapped in car seats that are designed to keep them from releasing themselves.  Adults and older kids do not have this problem with their seat-belt systems.

What kind of parent forgets his child?

Read this 2009 article in the Washington Post by Gene Weingarten before you answer that question.  Fatal Distraction   It is eleven pages.  Please read it all the way through.  I'll wait.... 

It may surprise you that educated responsible non-ropesmoking parents have killed their beloved children by leaving them to bake to death in parked cars.

Here are some recent examples:

---A boy, four years old, died in May, in North Carolina, after being left in a hot van by his grandmother.  She dropped other kids off at school and didn't notice the preschooler.

---A girl, one year old died May 17th after being left in a car in Dallas in the parking lot of the elementary school where her mother worked as a teacher.  The mother, 42, was convinced she'd dropped the child at her daycare.  A student saw the child and called authorities.

---In James City, Virginia a 24-year-old man left two children, belonging to his girlfriend, in a locked car while he shopped.  He returned as deputies and medics were on the scene.  A witness noticed the children in the car and went to several shops looking to find the owner of the car, but then called the police.  This has a happy ending.  The children were removed from the vehicle sweaty and hot but otherwise unharmed.  The older three-year-old was coaxed to unlock the car and medics turned them over to Child Protective Services.  They were in the car unattended for twenty-three minutes.

And some deaths are not from parental forgetfullness, but from the child entering an unlocked or open car door and pulling the door shut and then being unable to open the door, or just falling asleep as the temperature inside rises rapidly.

You come away from the Washington Post article and recent news stories with the conviction that this could happen, given the circumstances, to anyone.   Anyone.  Even you. 

I no longer have small children.  They are all adults and some have small children of their own, so with my grandchildren in mind, and other tykes, I strongly urge all who read this to take some easy sensible steps to prevent this tragedy. 

One tactic is to put a big stuffed toy in the car seat and move it to the front seat when you displace the teddy bear with a child.  The bear in the front seat cannot be hurt by the airbag, but can remind you of the child in the back when you finally park and exit the vehicle.

Another tactic is to put something important to your work or essential to the errand you are running in the back seat with the baby, thereby forcing you to look back there before running into your workplace for four hours.  Put your briefcase back there or the shopping list or the dog you are taking to the vet.

Arrange for daycare providers to call you if your child does not arrive on time. 

Lock your car doors at home. 

Nothing is foolproof.  There may be people who forget to transfer the toy to the front seat or forget that their handbag is in the back, or exit their vehicle and forget the signifcance of the stuffed bear in the passenger seat, but these steps will cut down on the deaths. 

My idea is to buy a cheap length of elastic, put a hook on each end.  Hook one end to the car seat and the other end to a vent or knob on the door side of the driver seat.  This way the driver cannot exit the vehicle by way of the driver door without running into this elastic band.  Even if the child is in a car seat on the passenger side of the back seat, you can still stretch the elastic from the empty seat behind the driver across the door or get a longer piece of elastic and stretch it all the way over and around the driver seat.  If you keep the elastic always attached to the carseat you will be more likely to notice it and use it.  And you can always do the other suggestions also, so you have layers of kiddie reminders.

Or you could permanently disable the front passenger airbag and keep your child in the front seat.  This idea is vehemently excoriated by all the safety people, but I don't see the problem.  American airbags are designed for people who don't use seatbelts.  If your non-child passengers always buckle up they will be protected just like they were before the advent of the explosive whoopee cushion.  Three-point seatbelts are actually safer, when used, than relying on airbags.  They will also avoid bag abrasions, burns and maybe even detached retinas. 

You'll notice that I used the adjective "permanently" above.  Because if you put a rear-facing child seat in the front and forget to turn off the airbag just once, and it deploys, it could killl your child.

I suggest to you that you know your circumstances much better than some one-size-fits-all federal nanny.  Some states may have laws against front seat baby passengers so be aware of the laws in your state.  Or just buy an old restored car with three-point seatbelts and no airbags, and then it doesn't matter.  Or a pick-up truck with only a front seat.   You can put your child where you like...except the trunk.

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