2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey: Air Bags

SECTION 1: 2003 SURVEY RESULTS

Prevalence Of Air Bags
By 2003, three-in-four drivers (77%) reported having an air bag in their primary driving vehicle. Nearly two-thirds (63%) reported having driver and passenger frontal air bags compared to 12% with driver frontal air bags but no passenger frontal air bags1. More than one-fifth of drivers (22%), however, said they did not have an air bag in the vehicle they drive most often.

The results also suggested that some people may not fully understand their air bag system. Dozens of respondents said they didn’t know if they had air bags or where they were located.

Figure 1
Air Bags In Primary Vehicle, 2003

[d]

Qx: Does the (car/truck/van) you normally drive have an air bag?
Qx: Does that (car/truck/van) have an air bag in front of the driver?
Qx: Does that (car/truck/van) have an airbag in front of where a passenger would sit in the front seat?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
Unweighted N=11,039

The 2000 survey added a question pertaining to side air bags. In 2003 this question was reworded to ask “If there is an air bag anywhere else [besides in front of the driver or passenger].” While 77% of drivers reported air bags in their primary vehicles, only 7% of drivers reported having other air bags, in addition to the driver or passenger frontal air bags.

Table 1
Front and Other Air Bags In Primary Vehicle, 2003

No air bags
22%
Not sure/Ref if have air bags
1%
Driver frontal air bags only
12%
Driver and passenger frontal air bags only
55%
Driver and passenger frontal air bags and other air bags
7%

In front seat car doors

5%

In rear seat car doors

2%

Descending curtain

1%

Other non-frontal airbags

2%
Have one air bag type, DK about other
4%

Qx: Does the (car/truck/van) you normally drive have an air bag?
Qx: Does that (car/truck/van) have an air bag in front of the driver?
Qx: Does that (car/truck/van) have an airbag in front of where a passenger would sit in the front seat?
Qx: Is there an air bag anywhere else in that (car/truck/van)? Where? Anywhere else? (reworded in 2003)
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
Unweighted N=11,039

Air Bag Demand
Most of the public (87%)2 said they would prefer air bags on their next vehicle, compared to 9% who would prefer to not have air bags and 4% who were not sure. The majority of the public preferred vehicles with both driver and passenger air bags (83%).

Figure 2
Prefer Air Bags On Your Next Vehicle, 2003

Qx: Would you prefer that your next vehicle have driver air bags only, driver and passenger air bags, or no air bags?
Base: Total Population Age 16+
Unweighted N=6,180

Air Bags And Safety Belt Use
Air bags and safety belts are two parts of a vehicle’s passenger safety system. Safety experts emphasize that drivers and passengers should always wear their safety belts, regardless of whether or not the vehicle contains an air bag.
To assess consumer understanding of this issue, drivers were asked to agree or disagree with the statement: "If my car has a driver side air bag, I don't need to wear my seat belt when driving” (or for non-drivers, whether or not they need to wear the belt if there is a passenger air bag). Correctly, the overwhelming majority (95%) did not view air bags as a substitute for safety belts.

Figure 3
Agree Or Disagree: Safety Belt Unnecessary When Air Bag Is Present, 2003

Qx: Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: If my car has a (driver/passenger) side air bag,
I don’t need to wear my seat belt when (driving/riding).
Base: Total population age 16+
Unweighted N=6,180
*The sum of the percentages in the pie chart do not equal 100% because the numbers are rounded.

Drivers were more likely than non-drivers to believe that safety belts should still be used when the vehicle has an air bag. About 96% of drivers correctly disagreed with the statement "If my car has a driver side air bag, I don't need to wear my seat belt when driving." By contrast, 87% of non-drivers disagreed with the passenger air bag statement.

Figure 4
Agree Or Disagree: Safety Belt Unnecessary When Air Bag Is Present:
Drivers Versus Non-Drivers, 2003

 N=5,561 N=619 [d]

Qx: Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: If my car has a (driver/passenger) side air bag,
I don’t need to wear my seat belt when (driving/riding).
Base: Total population age 16+

Drivers with air bags in their primary vehicles were more likely to know that air bags do not eliminate the need for safety belts. Ninety-seven percent of drivers with air bags correctly disagreed that safety belts were unnecessary with air bags compared with 94% of drivers without air bags in their primary vehicles.

Figure 5
Agree Or Disagree: Safety Belt Unnecessary When Air Bag Is Present:
Primary Vehicle Comparison For Drivers, 2003

 N=4,328 N=1,173 [d]

Qx: Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement: If my car has a (driver/passenger) side air bag,
I don’t need to wear my seat belt when (driving/riding).
Qx: Does the vehicle you normally drive have an air bag?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
*The sum of the percentages in the pie chart do not equal 100% because the numbers are rounded.

Only 2% of drivers who said they use their safety belt all the time when driving agreed (incorrectly) with the statement, "If my car has a driver side air bag, I don't need to wear my seat belt when driving." The less frequently one wore a safety belt, the more likely he or she was to agree with the statement. More than one-fifth (22%) of drivers who rarely or never wear their safety belt incorrectly stated that safety belts don’t need to be worn when an air bag is present.

Figure 6
Believe Safety Belt Unnecessary With Air Bag By Belt Use, 2003

Qx: Please tell me whether you agree or disagree with the following statement. If my car has a (driver/passenger) side air bag, I don’t need to wear my seat belt when (driving/riding).
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle

Drivers whose primary vehicles had air bags were more likely than drivers without air bags to report frequent safety belt use. Eighty-five percent of drivers with air bags said they wore their safety belts all the time, compared to 80% of drivers whose primary vehicles did not have an air bag.

Figure 7
Frequency Of Driver Safety Belt Use By Whether Vehicle Has Air Bag, 2003

 N=8,554 N=2,366 [d]

Qx: Does the (car/truck/van) you normally drive have an air bag?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
*The sum of the percentages in the pie chart do not equal 100% because the numbers are rounded.

Safety Concerns
Even though 87% of the public said they preferred an air bag in their next vehicle, many still expressed concerns about air bag safety. In fact, more than four-in-ten respondents (43%) said that they had concerns about the safety of air bags.

Figure 8
Safety Concerns About Air Bags, 2003

Qx: Do you have any concerns about the safety of air bags?
Base: Total population age 16+
Unweighted N=6,180

When asked what concerns they had, the respondents referred specifically to injuries from air bags, or else described some functional characteristic of the air bag that they considered a safety issue. Many explicitly mentioned injuries to children (26%) or to adults (37%).

Figure 9
Types Of Safety Concerns
(Of Those Having Concerns), 2003

Qx: Do you have any concerns about the safety of air bags?
Qx: What are those concerns?
Base: Those with concerns about the safety of air bags
Unweighted N=2,694

Table 2 provides a more detailed breakout of the concerns expressed by respondents.

Table 2.
Air Bag Concerns, 2003

Item
Percent
Child injury
26%
Injury, unspecified
19%
Injury if placed in front seat
6%
Killed
4%
Suffocate or smother
4%
Other child injury mentions
1%
37%
Adults can be injured
14%
Smaller adults can be injured
13%
Suffocating
8%
Killed
3%
1%
Other adult injury mentions
2%
Other injury (age not specified)
32%
Injuries due to air bag deployment
14%
Broken bones
7%
Injuries due to speed of air bag deployment
6%
Injury to neck
5%
More injuries with air bags than without
4%
Any other injury mentions
2%
Other safety concerns
33%
Failure to deploy
7%
Rate of deployment too fast
6%
Split and release chemicals
6%
Deploys prematurely (no accident)
6%
Deploys in minor accident
4%
Other air bag safety mentions
8%
Other miscellaneous mentions
3%

Base: Those With Concerns About Air Bag Safety
Unweighted N=2,694 Percentages don't total 100% due to multiple responses

In 2000, respondents were asked what they thought was the likelihood that an adult sitting in the front seat would be injured by the air bag, when an air bag deploys normally. In 2003, this question was split into two questions: 1) how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat and wearing a safety belt would be injured by the air bag, and 2) how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat and NOT wearing a safety belt would be injured by the air bag?

Over half (53%) believed it either somewhat likely (40%) or very likely ( 13 %) that an adult wearing a safety belt would be injured by an air bag. Thirty-five percent felt it was unlikely that an adult would be injured.

Many more, more than three-in-four (78%)3 , believed it either somewhat likely (32%) or very likely (45%) that an adult NOT wearing a safety belt would be injured by an air bag. Only 14% felt it was unlikely that an adult without a safety belt would be injured by an air bag.

The public viewed children as more susceptible than adults to injury from air bags. The majority (64%) thought that it was very likely that a small child would be injured by an air bag. More than eight-in-ten people (85%) believed it was either somewhat likely or very likely a small child sitting in the front seat would be injured by an air bag opening normally.

Figure 10
Likelihood Of Being Injured By An Air Bag, 2003

Qx: Based on what you know or have heard, how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat AND WEARING A SEAT BELT would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally?
Qx: Based on what you know or have heard, how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat and NOT wearing a seat belt would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally?
Qx: How likely is it that a small child sitting in the front seat would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally?
Base: Total population age 16+
Unweighted N=6,197

Likelihood Of Injury With Air Bag In Vehicle
Drivers were divided on whether they would be injured in a crash with major vehicle damage while in an air bag-equipped vehicle. More than four-in-ten (43%) felt injury was unlikely with air bags; however, about four-in-ten (39%) felt injuries were likely even with air bags. A fairly large proportion said they weren't sure (11%) or it depends (6%).

Figure 11
Likely Or Unlikely To Be Injured In Crash Involving Major Vehicle Damage
When Air Bag Is Present, 2003

Qx: If you are driving in a vehicle that has an air bag and you get into an accident involving major vehicle damage, is it likely or unlikely that you would be injured?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
Unweighted N=5,546
*The sum of the percentages in the pie chart do not equal 100% because the numbers are rounded.

Likelihood Of Injury With Air Bag In Vehicle By Age
Youth and young adults were more likely than older drivers to believe they would be injured if they were in a crash in an air bag-equipped vehicle. More than half of drivers ages 16-20 (53%) believed that it is likely they would be injured, with the percentage decreasing steadily for older driver age groups to 29% of drivers 65 and older.

Figure 12
Believe Injury With Air Bag Likely In Crash Involving
Major Vehicle Damage By Age, 2003

[d]

Qx: If you are driving in a vehicle that has an air bag and you got into an accident involving major vehicle damage, is it likely or unlikely that you would be injured?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle is not a motorcycle
Unweighted N's listed above

This age correlation may have been more a function of risky driving behavior than an indication of people's confidence in air bags. The data suggested that those who engaged in risky driving behaviors (speeding, drinking and driving, infrequent safety belt use) were more likely than those who didn't to believe they were vulnerable to injury in a crash involving major vehicle damage while in an air bag-equipped vehicle.

Table 3.
Percent Believing Injury Likely In A Crash
While
In An Air Bag Equipped Vehicle
By Driving Behavior, 2003

Driving Behavior
Believe Injury
Likely
Unweighted N
Highway Passing
Others tend to pass me
38%
3,280
I tend to pass others
44%
1,788
Highway Driving Speed
Less than 55 mph
38%
227
55 mph
35%
686
56-60 mph
37%
878
61-65 mph
40%
1,479
Over 65 mph
43%
2,119
Drinking and Driving In Past 30 Days
No, didn't drink in past 30 days
38%
2,561
No, but did drink in past 30 days
40%
2,257
Yes, drove after drinking in past 30 days
42%
706
Frequency of Seat Belt Use
All the time
38%
4,685
Most of the time
46%
474
Some of the time
48%
190
Rarely/Never
47%
185

Feeling Safer With Air Bags
All respondents were asked whether they felt safer or less safe in vehicles with air bags. Despite some concerns about air bag safety, the public did not appear to regard air bags as dangerous to them personally. More than half (53%) said they felt safer with air bags compared to only 5% who said they felt less safe. About four-in-ten (38%) said they felt about as safe with air bags as without them.

Figure 13
Feel Safer, About The Same Or Less Safe With Air Bags, 2003

[d]

Qx: In general, do you feel safer in motor vehicles with air bags, about the same, or less safe in vehicles with air bags than those without air bags?
Base: Total population age 16+

Unweighted N=6,180

Protection From Air Bags
Nearly nine-in-ten said they felt that an air bag would provide at least some protection in a crash involving major motor vehicle damage (88%)4 . More than one-in-three said they felt an air bag would provide a lot of protection from injury, while more than half said they felt an air bag would provide some protection from injury (53%). Only 4% said they felt an air bag would provide very little protection and 1% felt it would offer no protection. Two percent said it depended on the type of crash and 4% did not know.

Figure 14
Air Bags Provide Protection From Injury, 2003

Qx: In general, how much protection from injury do you feel an air bag would provide in an accident involving major motor vehicle damage? Would the air bag provide… ?
Base: Total population age 16+
Unweighted N=6,180

Gender Differences: Safety Concerns
Females were more likely to be concerned about air bag safety than were males. Nearly half of females (47%) said they had concerns about air bag safety compared to 37% of all males. In addition, more females than males believed that children and adults would likely be injured by an air bag if it deployed. Females were less likely than males to feel safer in a vehicle with air bags (49% compared to 57%).

Table 4.
Safety Concerns By Gender, 2003

Item Total Males Females
Have concerns about safety of air bags
43%
37%
47%
Likely to injure adult wearing safety belt
53%
48%
58%
Likely to injure adult NOT wearing safety belt
78%
74%
80%
Likely to injure small child
85%
82%
88%
Feels safer with air bags in vehicle
53%
57%
49%

Qx: Do you have any concerns about the safety of air bags? (N=6,180)
Qx: Based on what you know or have heard, how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat AND WEARING A SEATBELT would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally? (N=6,197)
Qx: Based on what you know or have heard, how likely is it that an adult sitting in the front seat and NOT wearing a seat belt would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally? (N=6,197)
Qx: How likely is it that a small child sitting in the front seat would be injured by an air bag when it opens normally? (N=6,197)
Qx: In general, do you feel safer in motor vehicles with air bags, about the same, or less safe in vehicles with air bags than those without air bags? (N=6,180)
Base: Total population age 16+

Child Car Seats
A number of well-publicized injuries involving air bags have occurred to children sitting in the vehicle’s front seat. In some cases, the injuries involved small children in car seats. Therefore, it is important to know where adults who drive with children place child car seats and whether this is affected by the presence of air bags.

The 2003 Motor Vehicle Occupant Safety Survey asked a detailed set of child car seat questions to a subgroup in the sample for whom car seat issues were deemed especially relevant. These were parents of children under age 9, including some not living with their children but who still drove with them, and non-parents living with children under age 9 who at least sometimes drove with those children. For each of these respondents, a specific child was selected as a referent about whom questions were asked. In households where multiple children were eligible as referents, the interview randomly selected one child. If the child at least sometimes rode in a car seat, an extensive series of questions about car seat use was asked for that child.

The following section presents selected findings from this series of questions on car seats that relate to the air bag issue.

Placement Of Child Car Seat
Nearly all of the parent/caregiver subsample (99%) knew that the back seat was the safest part of the vehicle to place a child's car seat. Only 1% felt that the front seat was the safest place for a child car seat. Nonetheless, six percent still usually placed the child in the front seat when they drove.

Figure 15
Placement Of Child Car Seat, 2003

Qx: When you are driving and the (AGE) rides in the child car seat, is (he/she) usually in the front seat or the back seat?
Qx: Where would you say it is safest to place a child car seat in the vehicle…in the front seat or in the back seat?
Base: Child at least sometimes rides in car seat
Unweighted N=915

Placement Of Child Car Seat In Vehicles With Air Bags
Children are safer when placed in the back seat, especially if the vehicle has passenger frontal air bags. Children riding in the front seat can be seriously injured or killed by a passenger frontal air bag if it deploys. The parents/caregivers were more likely to place car seats in the front seat if their primary vehicles didn't have air bags. About 3% of those having driver and passenger frontal air bags said they usually place the car seat in the front seat. By contrast, 10% of those with driver frontal air bags but no passenger frontal air bags and 12% of those without any air bags said they put the child car seat in the front seat.

Figure 16
Placement Of Child Car Seat
By Primary Vehicle Comparison, 2003

Qx: When you are driving and the (AGE) rides in the child car seat, is (he/she) usually in the front seat or the back seat?
Base: Child at least sometimes rides in car seat
Unweighted N=915

Rear-Facing Child Car Seats In Vehicles With Air Bags
The parent/caregiver subsample was asked if they thought it was safe to place a rear-facing car seat in the front seat of a vehicle having passenger air bags. The correct answer was no, because it could place the child in the air bag's path, with the force of impact being too great for the child. While nearly all (92%) said it was unsafe, 3% believed it was safe, and 4% said they weren't sure.

Figure 17
Safety Of Child In Front With Air Bag When Child Car Seat Is
Facing Backward, 2003

Qx: Some child car seats are designed so that the child faces backward, to the rear of the motor vehicle. Suppose a child is riding in a child car seat facing backward. If the vehicle has a passenger side air bag, is it safe or unsafe to have the child car seat in the front seat?
Base: Child at least sometimes rides in car seat
Unweighted N=915
*The sum of the percentages in the pie chart do not equal 100% because the numbers are rounded.

Air Bag Safety Warnings
All respondents were asked if they had ever heard or seen any safety warnings about air bags. Three-in-four (75%) had heard or seen safety warnings. Those respondents were asked specifically what warnings they had heard or seen. The most common warnings were: the back seat is safest for children (32%), air bags can kill children (13%), sit as far back from the air bag as possible (11%), air bags can cause injury, without reference to age or size (11%), never put a rear facing child seat in front of an air bag (10%), air bags can injure children and small adults (7%), and always wear your safety belt when around air bags (7%).

Figure 18
Have Heard Or Seen Safety Warnings About Air Bags, 2003

Qx: Have you heard or seen any safety warnings about air bags?
Base: Total Population 16+

Table 5.
Safety Warnings Heard And Seen, 2003

Safety Warnings
Total population (N=4,699)
Air bag (N=3,247)
No air bag (N=875)
Back seat is safest for children
32%
34%
30%
Air bags can kill children
13%
13%
14%
Sit as far back from air bag as possible
11%
12%
9%
Air bags can injure you (uspec)
11%
11%
13%
Never put a rear facing child seat in front of air bag
10%
10%
10%
Air bags can injure children/small adults
7%
8%
7%
Always wear your safety belt when around an air bag
7%
8%
7%

Qx: What safety warnings about air bags have you heard or seen?
Base: Heard/Seen safety warnings about air bags

More than half of drivers (59%) who had air bags in their primary vehicles reported that their vehicles had warning labels about air bags. Those who said there was a warning label in their primary vehicle most often reported that the warning label was located on the sun visor (81%). Other locations for safety warnings about air bags included the dashboard (13%), owner’s manual (5%), glove compartment (5%), steering wheel (1%), and inside the door or on the door panel (1%). Three percent reported other locations, while 4% could not or would not say where the warning labels were located.

Figure 19
Have Warning Labels About Air Bags In Vehicle, 2003

Qx: Are there any warning labels about air bags in the (car/truck/van) you normally drive?
Qx: Have you heard or seen any safety warnings about air bags?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle has an air bag Unweighted N=4,239

Table 6.
Location Of Warning Labels In Primary Vehicle, 2003

Item Total
Sun visor
81%
Dashboard
13%
Owner's manual
5%
Glove compartment
5%
Steering wheel
1%
Inside door/door panel
1%
Other
3%
Don't know
4%

Qx: Where in the vehicle are the warning labels?
Base: Drivers who said there was a safety warning label about air bags in their air bag equipped vehicle
Unweighted N=2,569

Among drivers with air bags in their primary vehicles, 66% report warning labels in vehicles purchased new, compared to 53% of those purchased used.

Figure 20
Have Warning Labels About Air Bags In Vehicle
By New/Used Vehicle, 2003

Qx: Are there any warning labels about air bags in the (car/truck/van) you normally drive?
Qx: When you got the (car/truck/van) did you get it new or used?
Base: Drivers whose primary vehicle has an air bag

1The 2003 survey used separate questions to ask if there was an air bag in front of the driver and in front of the front seat passenger. Previously, the survey had used a single question to make this determination.

2When a percentage is cited in text that combines two or more response categories, it is combined using non-rounded numbers. That combined percentage may differ slightly from the sum of the listed percentages for the component categories because the category percentages are rounded numbers.

3The number does not equal the sum of the components in the Figure due to rounding.

4The number does not equal the sum of the components in the Figure due to rounding.

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