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October 9, 1997

Death Ex Machina

It's hard to re-create the mood that prevailed ten years ago when, horrified at a seemingly uncontrollable rise in highway deaths, consumer advocates, private citizens, and the Department of Transportation raised a angry clamor for safer cars. In response, carmakers came up with "supplemental restraint systems," fabric air bags that support existing seat belt systems by inflating instantaneously at the time of a collision.

We immediately incorporated these devices into our vision of a better tomorrow. Comforting videos of crash tests showed gossamer bags floating like lovers in slow motion toward life-sized dummies. Comedians turned them into movie props that stymied criminals --- or true love --- by inflating at the wrong moment. But the air bags also worked. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that they have saved more than 2,500 lives.

We applauded when Congress voted in 1991 to require passenger- and driver-side air bags on all cars manufactured after September 1997. Air bag production  and installation became very big business, hurtling suppliers like Morton International, TRW, and Breed Technologies into prominence and prosperity. Our enthusiasm was so great that, a year ahead of schedule, nearly every new car that rolled off a U.S. assembly line was equipped with dual air bags. That was only the beginning. They were followed by side-door air bags, and Mercedes-Benz has plans for the ultimate inflatable machine, a car wrapped in seven different systems employing a total of 17 air bags.

From the beginning, the carmakers themselves cautioned that these white nylon balloons could cause abrasions, eye or neck injuries, and worse. But we discounted their warnings because we had heard the manufacturers opposing other safety devices that might increase production costs. Besides, once we had decided that air bags were what we wanted, we didn't bother to ask questions.

Recently, however, a series of bizarre accidents has forced us to acknowledge air bags' lethal potential. Infants have died strapped into their car seats. A five-year-old boy was killed in Utah, his seat belt in place, and so was a five-year-old girl in Tennessee. One woman driver lost a thumb, cleanly sliced off. Another, eight months pregnant, lost her baby. Still another died of a broken neck. Less than a hundred deaths have been reported so far, but Kathy Jackson calculates in Automotive News  that the injury rate from the deployment of air bags may reach 25 percent.

What is it about air bags that makes them so dangerous? Positioned to set up a flexible barrier just in front of a person's chest, they literally explode onto the scene at the time of a crash. Problems arise when they cannot perform as they are supposed to --- when they run into the person while they are inflating or when they strike the person's head.

Confronted with a public on the verge of panic, the Department of Transportation created an "unprecedented" coalition of carmakers, air bag suppliers, insurance companies, safety organizations, and the federal government. It mobilized a nationwide education blitz that combined training, letters, and colorful signs about the correct use of air bags and seat belts. It agreed to allow the installation of less powerful devices as well as cut-off switches in vehicles with no back seat; it called for the development by 1999 of "smart" air bags, which would adjust to passengers' size and position.

This was truly a situation where popular pressure worked. But where does this leave the owners of the 50 million cars equipped with early, less smart models? Caught between the expense of buying a new car with safer air bags and the danger of driving a car that may maim in the name of safety, they have asked to be allowed to use their own common sense, to equip their present cars with on/off switches. The San Francisco Examiner  cannot understand why anyone would "want a car in which lifesaving air bags can be deactivated with the flip of a switch." But I keep imagining the following scenario:

One Saturday afternoon, a young mother decides to take her two children and two of their friends to a local movie. She carefully buckles her five-year-old daughter and the friends into the back seat of the car and her seven-year-old son into the front. (The front seat is a perilous place for small children, but where else can she put him?) As they pull into the parking lot behind the theater, someone backs out of a space without looking. The two cars collide at a combined impact of about 15 miles an hour. The passenger-side air bag explodes. It hits her son directly in the head, breaking his neck and killing him instantly. The mother, who is 5 feet 3 inches tall, sits less than a foot from the steering wheel in order to reach the pedals. The driver-side air bag strikes her in the chest at a speed of over 150 miles per hour, breaking three ribs. Because she is so short, it also hits her face. The impact smashes her glasses, driving shards into her eyes, and inflicts brain damage from which she never recovers.

Americans who sought out cars with air bags several years ago, when not all vehicles carried them, are safety-minded people. Give them credit for driving with intelligence. Let them flip the switch.

-- Copyright Betsey Culp 1997

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