Airbags may have many advantages, but detractors abound.

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Are we better off with airbags?

There's really no debate -- airbags save lives and reduce the severity of injuries. Data based on crash testing and actual, real-world crashes, as well as studies by the Department of Transportation and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety show that airbags improve safety [source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]. There's still a strong undercurrent of opposition to airbags, just as there was for mandatory seatbelts, but the data doesn't lie.

That's not to say that airbags are perfect. If used improperly, they can cause injury or death. Children in car seats should not ride in the front seat if the vehicle is equipped with an airbag, and drivers generally should not sit within ten inches of the steering wheel. Since 1990, 290 airbag-induced deaths have occurred; in the same time frame, however, airbags have saved more than 27,000 lives [source: Insurance Institute for Highway Safety]. Side airbags are even safer -- no one has ever been killed by one. Even in the worst cases (which can be counted on one hand) they only cause minor injuries. In addition, modern front airbags have a safer, two-stage design. In low-speed collisions, they inflate with less force, reducing the chance of injury if a child or smaller person is in the front seat.

The cost-effectiveness of airbags remains a topic of extensive debate. Several studies have attempted to tabulate the cost of producing and installing airbags, the cost of fuel associated with the extra weight and the cost of replacing used airbags. That total cost is then compared to a numeric figure representing the economic cost of deaths and injuries. The number that comes out ahead seems irrelevant when someone you know was saved from serious injury or death.

Indeed, airbags can even help save you money. Many insurance companies offer discounts for vehicles with certain safety features -- including airbags. This may seem counterintuitive, since the airbags add to the cost of repairing the vehicle. In fact, that extra cost often means the vehicle will be written off instead of repaired. Insurance companies also pay to cover medical bills resulting from injuries, and those costs far outweigh the airbag replacement price.

For more information about airbag safety and development, follow the links on the next page.