Government helps drivers get air bag on-off switches Federal directory lists dealers, repair shops that will install devices

June 02, 1998|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

The federal government has stepped in to help thousands of frustrated motorists who cannot find mechanics willing to install on-off switches for their air bags.

The government announced yesterday that it has published a list of dealers and repair shops that will do the work, including 13 in Maryland.

Some businesses fear potential lawsuits arising from automobile crashes, said Liz Neblett, spokeswoman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

"There are unfounded fears of liability," she said.

NHTSA has given permission to more than 30,000 car owners, including more than 700 in Maryland, to have the switches installed. About 1,000 forms have been returned indicating that the work has been performed.

Generally, the agency will approve the switch only if the motorist cannot avoid putting children in the front seat, has a medical condition that makes an air bag dangerous or cannot sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel.

Air bags have killed 99 people, including 57 children, since 1990, according to NHTSA. Most victims were not wearing seat belts, were sitting too close to the air bag or were in rear-facing child seats when the air bags deployed. NHTSA estimates that air bags have saved more than 2,800 people.

In an open letter to dealers and repair shops, the agency sought to allay their concerns. It said the vehicle manufacturers who are making the switches generally will indemnify dealers if they install the switches properly.

"NHTSA believes the risk of a lawsuit being filed is remote," the letter said. Since 1995, the agency has allowed 3.2 million vehicles without back seats to have the switches, and it is unaware of any lawsuits involving them.

Switches are not available for many models with air bags. NHTSA has published a list of those models and when switches will be available.

Dwayne Cotton, service manager at Apple Ford in Columbia, said interest in on-off switches has dwindled since last year. Although it was left off the NHTSA list, his dealership has installed about 10 switches since January. "We're one of the few who are doing it. We have customers coming from Virginia," he said.

According to the NHTSA, other dealers in Maryland that install switches are Norris Ford (Baltimore), Chesapeake Car Care (Pasadena), Chevy Chase Cars (Bethesda), Ramsey Pontiac Oldsmobile GMC (Chestertown), Burdette Brothers Inc. (Clarksburg), Advantage Ford (Easton), Bob Smith Automotive Group (Easton), Hamilton Pontiac Cadillac (Hagerstown), Bell Motor Co. (Leonardtown), Team One (Oakland), Butler Automotive Service Center (Rockville) and Far East Motors (Silver Spring).

Fox Chevrolet Timonium, which appears on the list, said it is not installing switches because of fears of lawsuits.

"What happens if the car is sold or lent to another person? People pester us all the time to put switches in, but we feel the threat of litigation is too high," said James Klink, Fox Chevrolet's parts and service director.

Pub Date: 6/02/98

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