Motorists planning to disconnect their air bags if the government allows it may be left with something they didn’t anticipate: less effective seat belts.
The seat belts on some newer cars were designed to work with their air bags, automakers say. Alone, they will not protect a person as well as an older-style belt in serious crashes.
The newer belts allow a person to travel forward a few more inches than older belts, since automakers installed air bags to cushion the person. If the air bag is removed, however, the person faces a greater risk of head or chest injuries from hitting the steering wheel or dashboard.
Although it is difficult to tell how many vehicles have the looser belts, General Motors Corp. - the largest U.S. automaker - says more than half the vehicles it produced in the past two or three years has them, as do a few Ford and Chrysler models. Some foreign automakers also use the looser belts.
Federal transportation officials are considering allowing motorists to disconnect air bags in response to five dozen air bag-related deaths. But automakers and safety advocates say disconnecting the air bags is generally a bad idea.
Chrysler Corp. and Ford Motor Co. use such belts in less than 5 percent of their respective fleets, including the Dodge Avenger, Chrysler Sebring, Eagle Talon, Ford Probe and Ford Escort.
The newer belt can “give way a little bit so that the air bag takes up some of the force of the crash and spreads it out over a broader section of your body,” said Phil Frame, spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The result: fewer belt injuries.