July 19, 1996 in City

Children Take Back Seat In Auto Safety

Mary Newsom Knight-Ridder
 

Right off, it seemed obvious to me that here was yet another example a tragic one of how, for too many of the people running our country’s business, children simply do not exist.

A package of articles in USA Today on Monday described the way passenger air bags, meant to save lives, instead are killing children. An analysis done for the newspaper found that the bags kill twice as many children as they save. Since 1993, 22 of the 23 people known to have been killed by the passenger air bags were children, from 1 week to 9 years old.

The reason? Essentially, the bags are designed to protect the average adult male (5 feet 8, 165 pounds) not restrained by a seat belt in a 30 mph head-on crash. That requires a force so great that the bags pummel children, bashing their brains or snapping their necks.

Reading this, I started to remember all the instances in which it becomes glaringly obvious that the existence of children, and those who care for them, does not even bubble up into a conscious thought in people’s minds.

Have you ever visited a public restroom with a sink too high for children to wash their hands? Or one with no paper towels, only an electric blower? Or, the worst, a place with no towels and the blower set way up high? Why has it never dawned on people who run such places that children may use their restrooms?

Have you ever visited a family tourist attraction and found no place to change a baby’s diaper in the restroom? Why isn’t “family” interpreted as including babies?

And have you ever noticed how many playgrounds put metal sliding boards in the hot sun, rather than in shade? Such playground builders must never have visited a playground with a child on a hot summer day.

My peevish personal list goes on, but I will stop here, because deep into the USA Today article it became clear that, after all, automakers and government regulators knew the passenger air bags might be dangerous to children. But they began installing them anyway.

That revelation floored me. How could such a thing happen?

The answer, provided by USA Today, was sobering. In a nutshell, it was that the polarized camps of auto safety advocates and automakers became such enemies that no one trusted anyone to tell the truth.

Cynicism “apparently blinded and deafened airbag advocates to what proved prescient warnings from car companies. Government mistrust of automakers was shared by insurers and people in general. In turn, automakers became contemptuous of regulators and activists,” the article said.

Further, once it became clear that the buying public liked the idea of passenger-side air bags, the automakers began offering them, despite their earlier protestations - most of which had involved cost, rather than the issue of possible harm to children.

What lessons can any of us take from this? The whole arena of government regulation on one side and rampant free market capitalism on the other is fraught with the possibility for a similar tragedy to occur again. It is precisely this dynamic - on one side industry so concerned about profits that it willingly sets aside safety concerns and on the other side, government regulators unwilling to listen to any industry worries - that makes so many people cynical about all institutions. In this scenario, no one looks very good.

Is the answer for government to stop regulating industry? No. History is full of examples of private industry eager to turn a blind eye to gross threats to public health and safety. You do not even have to look deep into the past. Remember 1991’s tragic fire at the chicken processing plant in Hamlet, in which 25 workers died, because safety exits were blocked?

Or consider that, because poultry processors do not want to raise the price of chicken, you have to treat raw poultry in the kitchen rather like hazardous waste - scrub down everything in the kitchen afterward, then scrub yourself with chlorine.

I think all sides - regulators, industry and elected officials - need to change their acts. First, all should stop exaggerating the facts to make a point. No more crying, “Wolf!” unless they are willing to be ignored when a wolf really appears. Stop demonizing the other guys. Even when the other guys are clearly wrong, it is destructive to everyone to create a climate in which no one believes anyone.

Finally, and most important, always consider this: What will this action mean for the children, now and in the decades to come?

Remember, it is illegal for a mechanic to disable a safety device. Until regulators and the industry make air bags safer, here are some safety suggestions:

Always use safety belts and use them properly. They decrease the chances of injury for children and adults if the air bags are activated.

Put every child in a safety seat, in the back seat, until the child will not fit in the seat anymore.

Make all children ride in the back seat until they are about 12. The back seat of a car is up to 29 percent safer for kids than front seats, the National Safety Council reports.

Do not put kids under 12 in a seat with an air bag. Older children, those big enough to wear adult safety belts, should push the seat as far back as possible and not lean forward or put anything on the dashboard in the path of the air bag.

xxxx


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