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Air bags are life-savers, but they must work each and every time

For all of the traffic hazards we continue to face in the United States, it's nonetheless clear that driving is safer now than it used to be. This is largely thanks to improvements in automobile safety technology that protects drivers and passengers during crashes, reducing injuries and fatalities.

The very technology we use to make vehicles safer and more efficient can be a liability as well as an asset. As we learned last year with the General Motors recall scandal, even small vehicle defects can cause problems with safety features that drivers rely on, including air bags.

Not so long ago, air bags were more of a "luxury" safety feature. But they proved to be so effective at saving lives that by law, frontal air bags have been included in all new vehicles manufactured since 1999. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, frontal air bags in a head-on crash reduce a driver's risk of death by 29 percent. And for front-seat passengers age 13 or older, frontal air bags reduce the fatality risk by 32 percent.

While they are not yet universally mandatory, side air bags in vehicles have been shown to be even more effective at saving lives. Some automakers are even starting to include air bags for back-seat passengers.

Because frontal air bags are standard issue, Americans now take these safety devices for granted. Unfortunately, two major recalls in 2014 included problems with air bags either failing to deploy during a car accident (the GM ignition switch recall) or inflating with so much force that metal components can explode (the Takata air bag recall). In the case of the latter, these exploding components can send shrapnel flying throughout the car, which is arguably more dangerous than not having an air bag at all.

Many of us make vehicle purchasing decisions based on crash-test ratings and advertised safety features. In some ways, we literally stake our lives on the reliability of these safety devices. In the aftermath of these recall scandals, air bag safety and regulation ought to be among our highest priorities.

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