Ministers launch inquiry after two killed by airbags

Safety of airbags in car crashes to be investigated

An inquiry into the risks caused by airbags in cars is to be launched by the Government after two British women were killed by the safety devices.

An inquiry into the risks caused by airbags in cars is to be launched by the Government after two British women were killed by the safety devices.

The study, to begin next year, will try to see what difference seatbelts make when airbags are deployed in a crash. Although there is a huge amount of data about the effects of airbags from crashes in the US, most of it relates to people who were not wearing seatbelts. The wearing of seatbelts is not compulsory in many US states, but since 1991 manufacturers have been obliged to fit airbags to all new cars.

The British experience of airbags has been minimal because it is not compulsory for manufacturers to fit them. But there have been at least two cases where motorists have died after airbags inflated.

Jennifer Reichardt, 47, from Liverpool, was involved in a head-on crash in January 1998 and died from injuries caused when the airbag inflated, an inquest was told. Ten months later, Christalla Sergi, 69, was fatally injured when the airbag of her Vauxhall Corsa inflated in an accident on the driveway of her son's home in the Wirral. Ms Reichardt was wearing a seatbelt, but Ms Sergi was not. Evidence given at both inquests indicated that the women were sitting close to the steering wheel, and this may have been the reason they died.

Driver-side airbags are normally stored in the steering wheel. They are set off by systems that detect sudden stops: these release an explosive gas, which expands the airbag at up to 200mph. The impact can be dangerous for people who sit very close to the wheel, or whose head is below the main part of the bag. Children and small adults have been killed in the US by the inflation. Babies in backward-facing child seats can also be endangered bypassenger-side airbags.

Announcing the safety inquiry, a spokesman for the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (DETR) said: "There is no adequate information at present in this country about whether airbags have contributed to safety or to deaths."

A spokesman for the Society of Motoring Manufacturers and Traders said: "People should not sit within the deployment area of the airbag. But at the end of the day airbags save many lives and it is more important to have one than not."

George Reichardt, father of one of the British women who died when airbags inflated, said: "Jenny was unlucky because she was right beneath the wheel as she was so small. Airbags can be a death threat and a life saver so changes do need to be made."

The DETR's director for road safety, John Ploughman, said: "Our engineers and administrators have looked very carefully at both cases which have been brought to our attention. We will certainly want to draw the attention of the researchers to these two particular cases because they raise very important questions."

In America, there have been about 15 million cases where airbags have deployed. They are reckoned to have saved about 4,000 lives, but they are also thought to have directly caused about 60 deaths, including more than 30 children.

In Europe, airbags are fitted to an estimated 20 per cent of the continent's 22 million cars.A study in 1999 by researchers at the Whittington Hospital in north London analysed 50 airbag-related injuries in Europe and North America. They found evidence of eye damage caused by the alkaline chemicals used to inflate the bags, dislocation of upper limbs, broken arms and spines, smashed rib cages and pierced lungs.

The study, published in the Postgraduate Medical Journal, found that two adult drivers killed when their airbags inflated after low-speed crashes would probably have been saved by their seatbelts. Eight children, who would probably have been saved by seatbelts, also died after airbags inflated.

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