Frightened by reports of killer air bags, American consumers are besieging safety regulators and automakers with demands for safer air bags or help in deactivating their air bags.
“We’ve received hundreds of calls and letters from people concerned about the safety of air bags,” said John Womack, general counsel for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “The level of fear out there is disturbing.”
Air bags are believed to have caused the death of at least 47 Americans, although a recent NHTSA study suggested that 1,500 adults are alive today because air bags protected them. Thousands more may be saved - possibly as many as 2,800 a year - once dual air bags become required equipment in new cars in 1998.
Womack’s agency has received calls or letters from more than 100 consumers seeking permission to have air bags deactivated. Many more are demanding that the NHTSA force automakers to install safer air bags.
But in only six cases, has NHTSA agreed for special medical reasons - to have air bags deactivated by a mechanic. It is illegal for mechanics to disable any vehicle safety device in the United States, although consumers can do it themselves.
More people may eventually receive permission because the NHTSA is considering formal guidelines for approving such requests.
Safety officials say much of the fear is unwarranted, and deactivating an air bag could result in the loss of life.
But the growing fear is understandable. More air bags will mean more dead children, unless something is done to change present air bag technology. Air bags now deploy at 200 m.p.h. - sufficient power to keep an average-sized man, who is not wearing a seat belt, from hitting the dashboard in a crash.
But that power has proved deadly to children. At least 28 children and 19 adults have been killed by air bags since 1990 in slow-speed crashes that safety officials say should have killed no one.