Belt up - don't get complacent because of airbags

Last month, John Nash, the brilliant mathematician and Nobel laureate, and his wife Alicia were killed in a collision during a taxi ride home from the airport. Nash, 86, and his 82-year-old wife had just returned from Norway, where he had gone to accept the Abel Prize, regarded as the mathematics equivalent of the Nobel Prize.

He became better known after his early life was reprised in the 2001 Oscar-winning movie A Beautiful Mind, in which Nash was played by Russell Crowe.

The collision happened after the cab driver overtook another car and struck a guard rail. Nash and his wife, the only fatalities, were thrown out of the car and died of injuries. They were not wearing seat belts, according to the police.

Seat belts saved my life several times while I was driving abroad. The most dramatic save happened along a narrow winding road near Punakaiki in New Zealand's South Island.

Punakaiki is a rare geological formation. It is a heavily eroded limestone

area where the sea bursts through several vertical blowholes during high tide, offering a spectacular display.

The breathless view unfortunately turned me into a driver-tourist. Too late, I noticed the 30kmh speed limit sign just before a sharp turn. When I hit the brakes, the car spun and crashed into the side of the mountain.

The impact turned the car 180 degrees, with the front facing the road, and the rear end slid into a ditch.

When the car stopped moving, I checked myself for injuries but there was none. I believe this was because I had fastened my seat belt securely. If I hadn't, the impact would probably have sent me cannoning through the front windscreen and bashing my head against hard rock, perhaps fatally.

When I was buying my first car, I wanted one with airbags. But that was in the late 1970s, and cars within my budget did not come with airbags. In any case, my brother Hsien Yang pointed out that seat belts were more vital in preventing injuries and so I bought a car without airbags.

Since then, I have made a conscious effort to belt up securely in a car, regardless of whether I was the driver or passenger. I did the same with my parents when we were rear-seat passengers.

I still belt up, even now when most cars sold here have airbags. The reason is that airbags are only meant as additional protection and do what they are supposed to do provided a passenger is wearing a seat belt.

That is why they carry the acronym SRS, which stands for Supplemental Restraint System.

Many people do not bother to fasten their seat belts, especially if they are in the back seat. They are either indifferent to road safety or think that accidents only happen to others. Ironically, having airbags gives people a false sense of security and they think seat belts are superfluous.

This is a dangerous misperception. Airbags provide supplemental protection in frontal or head-on crashes. Without being securely belted up, a passenger can slide under the airbag and suffer serious injury. Also, regular airbags will not help in a side or rear impact or a rollover crash.

Certainly, improvements have increased the protection afforded by airbags. For instance, passenger airbags, along with side impact airbags, appear to be more effective in helping to prevent deaths arising from accidents, as do newer airbags which provide protection from severe injury. Head-protecting side airbags such as curtain airbags are also effective in side impact and rollover crashes.

But airbags have disadvantages, the chief of which is that their deployment may injure passengers in some situations. Deployment injuries endanger children and infants most and can result in chest injuries, concussions, whiplash, abrasion burns, fractured fingers or thumbs. In fact, safety advocates advise against allowing passengers aged 12 or younger to sit in the front seats of airbag-equipped cars.

It is also worth remembering that not all cars have airbags. I am given to understand that apart from Prime Taxi, Singapore cab companies have opted out of having airbags for cost reasons. By contrast, all cars have seat belts.

Certainly, cars today are safer as they include more supplemental protection like laminated windscreens, reinforced bars in all doors and curtain airbags to minimise shard-related injuries. Yet, airbags and all other safety features only complement the humble seat belt as the primary - and legally required - form of driver and passenger protection.

That's why wearing seat belts cannot be over-emphasised. This is more so when the attitude among Singapore motorists, especially car passengers, seems particularly lax.

Rear-seat passengers often do not belt up and usually get away with it. And how many times have we seen doting parents giving in to their wailing children by improperly belting them up or not doing so at all? Worse, some parents sit in the front seat belted up and protected with a child, vulnerable and unbelted, on their laps.

Selectively publicised enforcement should accompany regular campaigns to educate the public on the importance of belting up.

In fact, the current penalty may also encourage the laissez-faire attitude towards wearing seat belts. Perhaps it should be more punitive to reflect the seriousness of passenger safety.

While I agree completely with the view that adults are responsible for their own safety, imposing a stricter penalty when cases involve injury or death could be considered.

Currently, failure to belt up penalises a driver with only three demerit points, the same as illegal parking. Yet, the potential danger is acutely different. Unlike illegal parking, not belting up may result in serious injury or death.

Perhaps the demerit points could be graduated, depending on the seriousness of the consequences of not belting up. If speeding carries a more punitive penalty because of the danger to life and limb on the road, so should not wearing a safety belt.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 21, 2015, with the headline 'Belt up - don't get complacent because of airbags'. Subscribe