Objective – Public concern has arisen about the reliability of front airbags because Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS) data indicate many nondeployed airbags in fatal frontal crashes. However, the accuracy of airbag deployment, the variable in question, is uncertain. This study aimed to provide more certain estimates of nondeployment incidence in fatal frontal crashes.
Methods – Fatally injured passenger vehicle drivers and right-front passengers in frontal crashes were identified in two US databases for calendar years 1998-2006 and model years 1994-2006: FARS, a census of police-reported fatal crashes on public roads, and National Automotive Sampling System/ Crashworthiness Data System (NASS/CDS), a probability sample of towaway crashes. NASS/CDS contains subsets of fatal crashes in FARS and collects detailed data using crash investigators. Front airbag deployment coding for front-seat occupant fatalities was compared in FARS and NASS/CDS, and case reviews were conducted.
Results – Among FARS frontal deaths with available deployment status (N=43,169), front airbags were coded as not deployed for 18% of front occupants. In comparison, NASS/CDS (N=628) reported 9% (weighted estimate) nondeployment among front occupants killed. Among crashes common to both databases, NASS/CDS reported deployments for 45% of front occupant deaths for which FARS had coded nondeployments. Detailed case reviews of NASS/ CDS crashes indicated highly accurate coding for deployment status. Based on this case review, 8% (weighted estimate) of front occupant deaths in frontal crashes appeared to involve airbag nondeployments; 1-2% of deaths represented potential system failures where deployments would have been expected. Airbag deployments appeared unwarranted in most nondeployments based on crash characteristics.
Discussion – FARS data overstate the magnitude of the problem of airbag deployment failures. There are inherent uncertainties in judgments about whether or not airbags would be expected to deploy in some crashes. Continued monitoring of airbag performance is warranted.