U.S. officials begin campaign on benefits of air bags

November 20, 1997|By Peter Jensen | Peter Jensen,SUN STAFF

Federal safety officials launched a national campaign here yesterday to educate the public on the benefits of air bags and the limited circumstances in which motorists are better off deactivating them.

Rules unveiled this week give car owners the right to have air bag on-off switches installed beginning Jan. 19, but only with approval of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Drivers must be unable to maintain a 10-inch distance from an air bag because of their short stature or a medical condition or be forced to have infants or young children in the front seat.

While some people have been harmed by the impact of an air bag deployment -- an estimated 87 people have been killed by them over several years -- safety advocates view air bags as a net benefit. Traffic safety administration statistics show that 2,620 drivers and passengers involved in accidents have been saved by air bags.

"We want to be sure the general public has the information they need to make an informed choice," U.S. Transportation Deputy Secretary Mortimer L. Downey said at a news conference in Baltimore.

Downey said the administration will distribute brochures containing forms requesting to have the switches installed.

Information will be made available through car dealers, state motor vehicle agencies, AAA clubs and the safety administration's Web site and hot line.

Officials stressed that air bags remain a benefit to "99 percent" of passengers and drivers. Most short people should adjust seats to maintain 10 inches from the steering wheel rather than deactivate an air bag, Downey said.

"When should a child be in the front seat? Almost never," said Deborah Baer, president of the Maryland Child Passenger Safety Association. "It's the most vulnerable part of a car."

Rules allow exceptions for medical reasons, such as people who must sit close to the wheel because they have scoliosis or Down syndrome. A switch will not be allowed because of pregnancy, chest surgery or osteoporosis or because a front-seat occupant uses oxygen or wears glasses.

With children up to age 12, permission will be given when a vehicle lacks a back seat, more children must be carried than can be accommodated by the rear seat or the driver must attend to a medically monitored infant.

A deactivation switch is expected to cost about $200.

Information: 800-424-9393 or www.nhtsa.dot.gov.

Pub Date: 11/20/97

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