Although airbags in automobiles have helped reduce overall injuries and fatalities by 32 percent since they were introduced in the 1970s, airbag deployment sometimes causes eye injuries, with an estimated incidence of 5 percent. A 2007 study led by Sunil K. Rao, MD, evaluated how seatbelt use correlated with eye injuries and the recovery of visual acuity in auto accidents where airbags deployed. The study concluded that “the use of seatbelts was associated with less severe ocular injuries and better visual outcomes.” Reviewing medical records of the Rhode Island Hospitals general eye clinic January 1997 to August 2005, researchers selected 47 patients who were either the driver or front-seat passenger in an auto accident with airbag deployment, excluding accidents with rollover or ejection. Patients had been questioned by clinic staff regarding seatbelt use, eyewear use, and airbag status.
Injuries were ranked as mild, moderate, or severe using a standardized scale: 49 percent of the patients had severe injuries, 23 percent moderate, 26 percent mild, and 2 percent were not injured. Seventy-one percent of those not restrained by seatbelts had severe injuries versus 31 percent wearing seatbelts. Forty-two percent of restrained patients had only minor injuries. Visual acuity outcomes also depended on seatbelt status, with unrestrained patients significantly more likely than restrained to have 20/200 or worse vision at the three month post-accident follow-up. None of the patients was wearing eyeglasses, and none had previously had cornea transplant or refractive surgery; these variables could influence results in future studies. The patients’ age, gender, accident type and alcohol status were not significantly related to injury severity.