A car airbag might be a life-saver, but for one 17-year-old girl, the safety mechanism was also the cause of a unique eye injury. According to a case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the young woman was hit by the airbag before she was even able to blink.
This is not the first time an airbag has been the cause of an eye injury; previous studies have been done on this particular kind of accident complication. One study based on The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s National Accident Sampling System for the years 1984-1994, found:
“Most of the injuries were induced by impact with the fully deployed airbag, but the more severe ocular trauma resulted from the actively deploying airbag striking the occupant. Thus, ocular trauma from airbags can occur in very minor impacts. Additionally, the left eye seemed more vulnerable to injury than the right. Nontethered airbags have greater inflation distances that tend to increase the probability of injury. External parameters that may also increase the severity of eye injury include an unfastened seat belt, sitting too close to the steering wheel, or wearing glasses.”
In this particular case, the young woman’s airbag deployed fully when the car she was in rear-ended the car in front of it. The impact caused the airbag to release so quickly and forcefully that it left an imprint of its canvas on the surface of the girl’s eyes in addition to tearing the surface tissue and causing minor bleeding.
“When we looked at her under a magnified view, we could see that there was this very unusual imprint on the surface of the cornea a rather dramatic-looking picture of the imprint of the nylon mesh pattern of the airbag cover,” said Dr. Jonathan Trobe, an ophthalmologist at the University of Michigan Kellogg Eye Center, told LiveScience. “It’s quite interesting to see that the airbag deployed so quickly that she didn’t have time to close her eyes.”
Despite the minimal risk for eye injury, experts maintain that airbags are, next to seat belts, one of the easiest ways to prevent motor vehicle fatalities. Even back in the early 90′s, statistics were able to show the benefit of airbags. At the time, 4 percent of cars on the road had air bags, primarily only on the driver’s side. Federal officials estimated that air bags have inflated in more than 57,000 accidents since they were introduced in 1986, saving about 300 lives in the fist 6 years alone.
But that doesn’t mean being hit with an airbag in a non-fatal accident will leave you unscathed.
I have seen this (eye injury) a lot,” said Dr. Jules Winokur, an ophthalmologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, who wasn’t involved with the case. “Actually, this case report is a really mild case of the damage that airbags can do. I was just involved, over the weekend, on a patient here in the hospital who was in a car accident with an airbag injury, and now is completely blind in one eye.”
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Thankfully, experts say eye injuries sustained from airbags are usually mild. Even in the case of the 17-year-old with a canvas imprint, her injuries were fully resolved in about 2 weeks.
“The thing to keep in mind here is that if you didn’t have the airbag and hit your head, it would be much worse,” Trobe said. “This is almost like an exchange. This is a little bit of small price to pay.”