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Seatbelts and airbags: Why aren't they more effective?

Car accidents are a leading cause of death across the nation. In recent decades, advances in technology and safety gear - as well as increased enforcement of seatbelt use - have come a long way toward keeping drivers and passengers safe.

But can these safety measures backfire?

The dangers of airbags

Airbags, for one, are dangerous when used or installed incorrectly. They use a controlled explosion to inflate at 40 milliseconds with such force that children and infants should never sit in the front seat, where frontal air bags could cause fatal injuries.

Airbags have been the subject of numerous recalls over the years. Most recently, the Takata airbags used by a wide range of auto manufacturers had a defect that led some to spontaneously rupture, spraying shrapnel throughout the vehicle and resulting in several deaths.

Ill-fitting seatbelts

It's difficult to argue against the benefits of seatbelts. On average, they save more than 10,000 lives every year.

Yet they aren't perfect. Most seatbelts are designed for the average 40-year-old man. They don't function as effectively for smaller, lighter passengers. They can even cause injuries ranging from concussions to rib fractures to fatal chest damage - especially among the elderly and fragile.

The benefits far outweigh the risks

Despite these dangers, air bags and seatbelts are still absolutely essential for the safety of both drivers and passengers - so long as they're used correctly. In the case of airbags, never allow children under age 13 to sit in front. As a driver or passenger, sit back at least a foot to allow the airbag adequate space to deploy. Adjust your seatbelt so that it rests over your collarbone, and make sure it's snug across your lap.

With new technologies redefining the auto industry, the day may soon come when airbags are virtually risk-free and seatbelts automatically adjust to fit each person's frame. Until then, these safety measures, however imperfect, can still make a life-or-death difference in the event of an accident.

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