Few seeking on-off option for air bags Starting tomorrow, car owners may have switches installed

'Hot subject' cools off

Deaths of children, short women raised fears about safety

January 18, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Motorists can have on-off switches installed on their air bags beginning tomorrow, but relatively few in Maryland and nationwide have applied to do so.

About 5,500 vehicle owners, including 110 Marylanders, have received federal permission for the switches, and 1,000 are waiting for approval, which is largely automatic.

The small number is a sign that despite fears about air bag safety last year, most motorists think they are better off with the safety devices than without, said Phil Frame, a spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"We're happy that the number is small because we always believed that very few people needed to have the switches," he said. "People heard the safety messages and heeded the safety messages."

Government and safety groups have been urging motorists to keep their air bags functioning and reduce risks by wearing safety belts and keeping at least 10 inches between breastbone and uninflated air bag. Rear-facing infant seats should never be placed in front of an air bag, and children 12 and under should ride in the back seat, they advise.

James Donnelly, 68, of Pasadena said he has read articles and talked to a mechanic about the benefits and dangers of air bags.

"I'm now convinced that if you're wearing a seat belt, you're probably better off with an air bag than without," he said. His wife continues to fear the air bag in his 1996 Honda Accord because, at just under 5 feet tall, she would have to sit close to it, he said.

Dwayne Cotton, service manager at Apple Ford in Columbia, said his dealership is getting many fewer calls about air bag deactivation switches than it once did.

"At one time it was a very hot subject. But during the last six months, we've heard very little about it," he said.

Reports of deaths

More than a year ago, it appeared that many more people would seek the option of deactivating their air bags. Many motorists said then that they were wary of air bags after news media reports that several dozen people -- primarily children and short women -- had been killed by the explosive force of a deploying air bag. Most of the victims were not wearing seat belts, were wearing them improperly or were sitting too close to the air bag.

The NHTSA responded in November 1996 by announcing several steps to make air bags safer. It first required warning labels in new vehicles and on child safety seats. In March, it gave auto manufacturers permission to reduce the explosive power of air bags by 20 percent to 35 percent beginning with the 1998 model year.

In November, the agency said vehicle owners could get switches installed if they could not avoid putting a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat, if they had medical conditions that made air bags dangerous, if they could not sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel or if they could not fit all their children in the back seat.

Before they can have a switch installed, motorists must submit an application to the NHTSA certifying that they meet one or more of those conditions and then must wait for the agency's approval.

Honor system

Applicants are essentially on the honor system. The NHTSA is not investigating individual claims and is not requiring medical proof.

Applicants also must certify that they have read an NHTSA information brochure and that they understand the "serious safety consequences" of turning off an air bag, including the possibility that seat belts in some vehicles with air bags might not work as well without the bag. Applicants are also told that before they install on-off switches, repair shops might require car owners to sign liability waivers.

Since 1990, 89 people, including 50 children, have been killed by air bags and an estimated 2,800 people have been saved by the devices, Frame said.

At Apple Ford in Columbia, mechanics will typically install an on-off switch for about $60, although the cost can go as high as $100. The vehicle owner must have a letter from the federal government authorizing the switch.

Cotton, the service manager, said he is not expecting much air bag business this week. "The demand has really declined in a major way, so I don't see a lot coming through," he said.

Information on air bags: NHTSA, 800-424-9393.

Pub Date: 1/18/98

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