The airbag guys forgot just one small thing

November 12, 1996|By Susan Reimer

AUTOMAKERS have resolved for mothers everywhere the unending argument over which child gets to sit in the front seat of the car.

Whichever one wants to die.

"Joe? Jessie?" I shout. "Let's go. In the car. I have a bunch of stupid errands to run and you have to come with me because I have a newsreel in my head of all the bad things that can happen if you don't."

"I'm in the front!" Joe shouts, moving quickly only because there is an opportunity to irritate his sister.

"No, me! You were in the front last time."

"Too bad. I'm here first."

Nothing will stop a fight like this faster than telling the winner he will be the one to die.

"What?"

"Simple, Joe," I say, with studied nonchalance. "You and your sister will distract me, a woman who already has too much on her mind, and I will engage us in some kind of minor fender-bender. The air bag in the dashboard in front of you will deploy, exploding in your face with 2,600 pounds of pressure, snapping your head back, breaking your neck and smashing your skull."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration says airbags -- the safety devices for which you traded in your perfectly good car -- are killing annoying brothers under the age of 13 as well as unborn children, babies, small children, short women and frail senior citizens.

A device designed to deploy during a head-on collision at 30 mph is blasting out of the dash at significantly less provocation and knocking the head off anybody smaller than a defensive back for the NFL.

Mothers everywhere had the mistaken impression that an airbag deployed like a giant bubble-gum bubble and gently cushioned their children, preventing them from slamming into the glove compartment or through the front window.

Now, the NHTSA tells us that children are safer in cars without air bags because this safety device was designed for their fathers, not for their mothers or for them.

Air bags were designed for the 5-foot-9, 165-pound male, the generic human, the same guy they choose for most medical research. And when it turns out that women and children respond differently to a 200-mph cannon blast from 12 inches away, everyone is surprised. Just as they were surprised to learn that women respond differently to heart disease, medications, anesthesia and painkillers.

Will all the 5-foot-9, 165-pound men who ride in the passenger side of the automobile while their wives or children drive please raise your hands?

Just because salesmen don't talk to anybody but the 5-foot-9, 165-pound husband when they are trying to sell a car doesn't mean he is the only one who will drive it.

I've logged more miles in the last four years than Warren Christopher, and I have done it with a child sitting next to me -- apparently with a big, red bull's eye in the middle of his face.

What is the point in having a front seat if only tall men can sit there?

Every woman in my car pool is going to have to hire a limo and a thick-necked driver to get the kids to soccer. Any woman with more than three kids is going to have to decide which one won't be at breakfast anymore.

In the meantime, the Big Three automakers will be writing letters to 22 million owners of cars with dual air bags, warning them that the only thing that can ride safely in the passenger seat is a purse and a grocery list.

This isn't the first warning the automakers have issued on the air bags. All the way back in 1969, Fortune magazine reports, General Motors warned that air bags could harm children. And Chrysler's Lee Iacocca said in 1984 that air bags were a solution that was worse than the problem, but no one listened -- perhaps because people suspected the automakers' motives were financial, not altruistic.

I don't think they even asked any women, because I am sure it would have occurred to at least one of us that something that is exploding into a child's face at 200 mph might be at least as dangerous as running with a lollipop in his mouth. We should have known the air bags weren't safe when the back-seat shoulder harnesses we wanted for our kids ended up choking them.

By the 1980s, safety advocates were pressing the government and the automakers for air bags, primarily to protect the huge number of -- I'm guessing men -- drivers too stubborn to wear seat belts, and they got them. By 1998, dual air bags will be required on all new cars.

It will be much longer -- three to five years -- before the technology is ready for "smart air bags," ones that can judge the size and position of the passenger and deploy accordingly.

Until then, we can call the guys who designed air bags crash dummies.

Pub Date: 11/12/96

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