Wearing a seat belt and having an airbag may reduce the risk of broken facial bones in car accidents, according to a new study.
People in car accidents who were using those protective devices were 18 to 53 percent less likely to end up at a trauma center with a facial fracture compared to people not using the devices, researchers found.
Studies from the 1980s and early 2000s also found that seat belts and airbags cut the risk of facial fractures, but the new study's senior author said a lot has changed since then.
"There have been advances in airbag technology and seat belt and airbag legislation," said Dr. Scott Chaiet, of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center in Memphis. "As time goes by, older cars also get off the road."
To get an updated view on whether airbags and seat belts were protecting people's faces, the researchers used information collected by the National Trauma Data Bank from 2007 through 2012.
Of the 518,106 people taken to U.S. trauma centers after car accidents during that period, 56,422 had at least one facial fracture. Broken noses were most common, follow by midface and other fractures, the researchers report in JAMA Facial Plastic Surgery.
Among those with facial fractures, about 6 percent were using an airbag, about 27 percent only had a seat belt and about 9 percent had both.
Compared to when people had no protection from airbags or seat belts during their accidents, facial fractures were 18 percent less likely when people had only an airbag, 43 percent less likely when they just wore a seat belt, and 53 percent less likely when they used both devices.
"When you use both together, the risk reduction is much greater," said Chaiet, who worked on the research while at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
People's fears that airbags could add to the damage are unfounded, Chaiet told Reuters Health.
There was no evidence that airbags increased the risk of facial fracture, he said.
In this study, at least, the use of protective devices increased over time. Simultaneously, the frequency of facial fractures fell slightly, from 10.7 percent to 10.5 percent.
"It appears the use of airbag, seatbelt and the combination are going up at least in regards to people who are showing up at trauma centers," Chaiet said.
The next step for this research would be to prove that finding, he said.