Deactivating air bags and drivers' anxiety Mobile worker lands in Baltimore to serve fearful customers

April 07, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

With electrical tape and screwdriver in tow, Paul Goheen travels the United States in search of air bags to disconnect. The Texan was in Baltimore yesterday to work on the cars of several older women -- all frightened of their air bags.

For many, Goheen is a kind of savior -- doing a job no one else will.

His customers share a fear that has been fueled by reports of five dozen air bag-related deaths, most involving unbuckled children and short women seated close to the air bag.

In Maryland, some of Goheen's customers have been unable to find a local mechanic to disconnect their air bags, even though they have the required permission from the federal government to have the work done.

Others lack the federal OK and don't want to wait for it.

Either way, it appeared yesterday Goheen will deactivate their bags -- and their anxiety. He and his partner, Jay Malone, are a two-man operation called Air Bag Options, based in Arlington, Texas.

It is illegal for a mechanic to disconnect an air bag for someone without a federal permission slip. Goheen wouldn't say whether all his customers have approval.

His reluctance is understandable. Air Bag Options recently came to the attention of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which regulates air bags.

"We sent them a letter asking them not to perform illegal deactivations," NHTSA spokesman Phil Frame said. "We're trying to be real nice about it."

Goheen said he and Malone are not mechanics and therefore are not barred from disconnecting air bags or subject to the punishment, a $1,000 civil penalty.

That argument did not impress Frame. "If they're in the business of working on cars, which they admit to being, then they're mechanics," he said.

NHTSA permits deactivation only for people with medical problems that put them at risk or with children who must sit in the front seat. It has granted 1,200 requests from such motorists nationally.

However, the agency also is considering a proposal to allow anyone to have an air bag disconnected.

Although NHTSA has concerns, local customers say Air Bag Options fills a vital safety need.

"I was afraid to drive my car, and I had cut back on my driving," said Nina J. Shipley, 67, a tiny wisp of a woman at 4 feet 8 inches and 85 pounds.

The bags pose a risk because her height forces her to sit an inadvisable 5 inches from the steering wheel and because she has osteoarthritis, she said.

Yesterday, she watched outside her Television Hill rowhouse as Goheen worked on her green 1995 Ford Escort. He unscrewed the middle part of her steering wheel, unplugged the air bag connections and covered them with black electrical tape -- disabling but not removing the bag, which could be hooked up for a future owner.

Then he went to work on the passenger bag.

"Now I can drive the car as much as I want," Shipley said happily.

Although she contacted NHTSA, she said, the material it sent her did not say she needed permission for a disconnection or explain how to get it.

Goheen is helping her obtain the federal OK, but Shipley was unimpressed by the need for it. "They didn't tell you about the risks or dangers [a few years ago], so who are they to tell you not to disconnect them?" she asked.

Shipley was one of a dozen Baltimore-area residents Goheen was to visit yesterday and today. He charges $149 to deactivate one bag and $199 for a pair.

News on Internet

Goheen made many of his business contacts here after his partner found a news story on the Internet about Violet Cosgrove, a Glen Burnie resident who could not find a dealership or garage to disconnect the air bag on her 1995 Buick Century.

Cosgrove, 70, had permission from NHTSA because of osteoporosis and arthritis.

Air Bag Options called Cosgrove, who in turn contacted friends and acquaintances. In a modern-day version of a Tupperware party, she assembled about a dozen people at her home last month to get their bags disconnected.

Goheen said he only does the work for people at risk: short adults who must sit too close to the air bag, people with medical conditions such as brittle bones and people who must put young children in the front seat.

The vast majority of his customers are short women 60 and older, he said. The rest are parents with large families or with young children traveling in car pools.

"Three percent of the calls I get are from people who just flat don't want air bags. Those are the people I turn down," he said. "We will not disconnect an air bag for someone who does not fit NHTSA's guidelines."

Long waits for approval

Still, it is unclear whether NHTSA would approve everyone who falls within the categories outlined by Goheen. "Being short is not a medical reason," Frame said. "Short people receive significant benefits from air bags."

Some drivers complain of long waits to get NHTSA approval, although the agency said applications are being processed more speedily.

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