Airbags are harmful to most children, but those aged nine to 12 could actually benefit from them, according to a recently published School of Public Health report.
The report, published in August's Risk Analysis: An International Journal, was publicized nationally Monday.
Authors Roberta J. Glass, Maria Segui-Gomez and John D. Graham, director of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis (HCRA), analyzed data from fatal accidents from 1989 to 1998 involving 16,177 children.
They concluded that children sitting in the front seat of a car during an accident were 31 percent more likely to be killed in the accident, even when wearing a seat belt. If children were not wearing seatbelts, fatality rates rose to 84 percent.
Despite these alarming figures, Glass said the meat of the report is that children aged nine to 12 "appear to get some benefits from airbags."
The study found that children aged nine to 12 who were wearing seat belts were 39 percent less likely to be killed in accidents than children in cars not equipped with airbags.
However, Glass cautioned that parents should continue to seat children in the back seats of automobiles.
"They are much safer in the back seat than they would ever be in the front," Glass said.
She also cautioned that most of the cars included in the study used what are known as "first generation" airbags, whereas cars today use "second generation" airbags, which deploy with less force. Cars have been equipped with second generation airbags since 1997.
Tim T. Hurd, chief of media relations for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, said that the report has compiled more helpful data.
"[But] it doesn't change the warning we have to put children in the back seat," Hurd said.
According to David P. Ropeik, director of risk communication at the HCRA, the center held off on publicizing the study until Monday for fear it would be overshadowed by the Firestone tire recall in August.
"We wanted more attention for it, so when the Firestone story was grabbing attention we thought the public wouldn't learn as much if we released it then," he said. "We wanted to release it in a way that would get it the most attention."
The airbag study is the kind of work done regularly at the center, Ropeik said.
"We try to put risk into perspective by doing risk analysis, risk-risk tradeoffs and other kinds of analytic review so that we can understand these risks better and make smarter decisions as a society on how to protect ourselves with limited resources," Ropeik said.
The HCRA is also currently researching the effect of using cellular telephones while driving, as well as effective ways to get parents to seat their children in their vehicle's backseats.
"We were one of the principal early players highlighting the dangers of airbags to children," Ropeik said.
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