December 15, 1996 in Nation/World

Inflated Fears Experts Say The First Rule Of Automobile Accidents Still Holds True: Hit Something Soft

By The Spokesman-Review

Even at just 30 mph, dramatic things happen to the human body in a head-on crash. The average driver’s chest slams forward 12 inches. Fully seat-belted, his head arcs nearly 24 inches, forward and down. Point of impact: his face.

He will plant it on the rim or hub of the steering wheel, absorbing the crush.

Air bags, in less than the blink of an eye, are designed to soften that blow.

That’s why Lori Taylor, trauma case manager at Sacred Heart Medical Center, told more than 100 critical care nurses last week “No, don’t do it,” when asked if they should disconnect their air bags.

Air bags have deployed in more than 650,000 crashes in this country since 1987, Taylor said. Of all injuries connected to the devices, involving about 160,000 people,

1 percent were serious or fatal. At the same time, air bags are believed to have reduced driver deaths in the most common type of crash - headons - by about 30 percent, she said.

Since a November fender bender, in which a Boise child was decapitated by a passenger-side air bag, panicked parents, elderly drivers and short women have telephoned car dealers asking if they can disconnect their air bags. Nationally, 3,500 calls were made to an air bag safety hot line since Nov. 1.

As a trauma specialist, Taylor cautions that the benefits of air bags still outweigh the risks. “You have to keep the problem in perspective.”

Since air bags were first developed, industry experts have known their violent deployment posed some risks, particularly to children.

But thousands of car owners were aware of only vague labels and warnings: “If you are not in a normal riding position with your back against the seat back the air bag may not protect you properly and may hurt you as it inflates,” stated a 1990 car manual.

Many, like Susan Baumann, don’t know what to think now.

An insurance agent with the American Automobile Association in Spokane, she knew air bags reduce insurance costs and save lives. But until her driver-side air bag deployed in a crash Dec. 1, 1995, she had no idea how much they could hurt.

“I don’t know whether it saved my life or almost killed me. I will never know,” said Baumann, who is 5 feet 7 inches tall. “I do know it hurt me badly.”

Slammed against her seat by the air bag, Baumann suffered a broken bone in her back, torn muscles, bruising, cuts and blistering on her face and arms.

In a recent snowstorm, she crept home along deserted side streets, terrified of another collision.

Her new car also has an air bag - as will every car manufactured in this country beginning in 1998.

“To me it made common sense to have that protection,” Baumann said. “I no longer feel protected. I feel vulnerable.”

That unease has percolated to fourth-graders at South Pines Elementary, who asked a visiting Taylor on Tuesday if air bags are safe.

“Absolutely,” the injury specialist said. Nationwide, air bags have saved more than 1,500 lives since 1986, 500 last year alone, according to the safety officials.

“It’s really frustrating because we see air bags and seat belts make a difference all the time. That doesn’t make headlines,” Taylor said.

Most people realize that lives have been saved.

But a recent Washington, D.C., survey showed many people believed air bags deploy almost in slow motion, as “a soft billowy pillow.” They thought the children killed so far were killed by suffocation.

Designed to protect belted and unbelted motorists, air bags deploy at up to 200 mph, powerful enough to rupture the heart of a driver sitting too close or break a child’s neck.

Since 1993, 32 children and 20 adults have been killed by air bags in this country. Nine of the children were in rear-facing child seats close to the dashboard. Officials say those seats carried warning labels, either on the seat or in the product pamphlet, advising they should be used in rear seats only.

Most all the other deaths involved people who were not restrained or who were sitting too close to the air bag, including several petite women and at least one 6-foot man.

Now officials have launched a massive education effort.

“We realized that people didn’t understand how air bags worked or, for whatever reason, they were not heeding the warnings,” said Janet Dewey, executive director of the national Air Bag Safety Campaign, a coalition of insurers, automakers and safety advocates.

Other education efforts include:

As of Tuesday, Washington State troopers and police officers making traffic stops began “suggesting” all children under 12 belong in the back seat, buckled up.

Emergency room personnel and medical examiners will report any suspected serious injuries or fatalities from air bags.

Chrysler Corp. announced a $3 million program starting in January to convince children to sit in the back seat.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering air bags that deploy with far less force and ways for dealers to deactivate air bags at the owner’s request.

Currently, vehicle owners need special permission from federal authorities to deactivate an air bag. Only 80 exemptions have been granted, such as for a child who must be in the front seat for medical monitoring.

Federal officials are also considering “smart” air bags tailored to the size of the occupant and speed of the crash. And, they promise to expand research to include crash protection that targets women, drivers over 70 and children.

The NHTSA just approved new warning labels that clearly state both drivers and passengers should sit as far back as possible from the air bag, always use seat belts and put children in the rear.

It’s information that Baumann said she wishes consumers would have known a long time ago.

As early as 1969, General Motors warned federal safety officials that children could be seriously injured or killed by the violent way air bags inflate, Fortune magazine reported. A 1974 study for Volvo used 24 live pigs to simulate what would happen to 3- to 6-year-old children near an air bag: Eight were killed and 13 seriously injured.

The Fortune writer blamed safety advocates for overriding those concerns. Safety advocates blame the Nixon administration, weak government regulation and misinterpretation of statistics. Others blame automakers, and automakers would like to change laws that require such powerful deployments in order to protect both belted and unbelted dummies in 35-mph crashes.

You could also blame the American public, which often doesn’t grasp the technology it is presented with.

Every state requires safety seats for infants, but up to 75 percent of parents misuse them by either mis-threading the belts or not using the necessary tethers, wrote Dr. Alvin Hyde, a retired emergency room doctor and author of “Crash Injuries, How and Why They Happen.”

Hyde, now a safety consultant in Key Biscayne, Fla., has long argued for putting children in the rear. In 1983, children under 10 in France were required by law to ride only in rear seats. The results equalled or bettered the results of all U.S. child safety restraint seat laws, without requiring anything be manufactured or purchased.

About 66 million vehicles in this country now have air bags, and that number will more than double in the next five years, authorities say.

Emergency rooms have reported bruises and cuts to the face, neck and chest from deployment. Air bags have caused thermal and chemical burns on the hand and face, broken eyeglasses and bruised or scratched eye lenses and corneas.

Nonetheless, safety experts like Hyde believe that the safest place to be is in a large car with air bags and safety belts.

He notes that seat belts alone can cause 80 different injuries to the body, “many of them fatal and all unpleasant,” because like air bags they restrain but do not stop motion.

Serious injuries from frontal collisions, on the other hand, have dropped 25 to 29 percent because of air bags, according to The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

“The steering wheel is the major source of injury and for short drivers it’s even worse,” said Dewey. “Ninety-five percent of drivers in a head-on crash strike the steering wheel head-on. That’s the bottom line.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: 2 graphic: 1. How an air bag works 2. Air bag hazard

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