Taking the wind out of auto air bags On-off switches: Government should grant motorists leeway until technology improves.

October 16, 1997

PUBLIC REACTION to automobile air bags has expanded and contracted almost as fiercely as the inflatable bladders themselves.

In the 1970s and early '80s, the public watched as car manufacturers resisted government's push to require driver-side air bags in vehicles. By the early '90s, however, automakers were touting air bags they had once resisted. In recent years, though, fear crept in after nearly 100 children and adults were killed or badly injured by the device's force.

The U.S. Department of Transportation is expected soon to rule whether to allow ''on-off'' switches for air bags. Insurers and automakers have urged the Clinton administration not to allow consumers to deactivate the bags.

However, until a ''smarter'' air bag is marketable, the government must make allowances for turning off air bags. Owners of pickup trucks with no rear seat or vehicles with too small a back seat to accommodate a rear-facing infant seat would put infants at risk by securing them in the front seat near an airbag. Older children and small adults (mostly frail, older women) have also been hurt or killed by fast-inflating bags, though riders who are wearing their safety belts properly -- snugly -- should be safe.

We have long supported legislative requirements for seat belts, including a ''primary'' law that took effect this month in Maryland. It allows police to ticket drivers for failing to wear a seat belt, apart from any other violation.

But people rarely die because they were wearing a seat belt. While air bags have saved some 2,000 lives and most motorists prefer the protection, the government should not force a car owners into a position that could jeopardize a vehicle's occupants, especially a child.

If DOT allows people in certain circumstances to turn off airbags, it must also press manufacturers to develop ''smart'' bags. They could include radar that would sense an impending crash and deploy the bag appropriately, perhaps 10 times more slowly than the 80-100 mph bags now available. The technology is farther along than you might imagine.

Seat belts, child seats and air bags have proven their worth the past decade as life-saving devices. The point of the pending air bag rule is not to abandon the gains thus far, but to allow a pause to fine-tune the system.

Pub Date: 10/16/97

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