After more than a year of debate, the government will issue a rule today allowing car owners to install switches to turn air bags on or off, according to administration sources.
The rule is a compromise designed to satisfy auto industry and consumer groups who say the switches could lead to more highway deaths, while mollifying motorists and passengers who fear the air bags, which deploy forcefully, could injure or kill them.
The air bag debate began 18 months ago, after a number of children were killed by air bags. President Clinton and Transportation Department officials, responding to the outcry, proposed that consumers be given broad discretion to disable their air bags. The administration’s proposal would have allowed consumers to deactivate without government permission, which drew protests from the auto industry and consumer safety groups.
“This is an extremely complex policy issue. We’ve heard arguments from all sides. In the end, we think we came up with the best, balanced program possible,” said one administration official knowledgeable about the rule.
The switches will cost as much as $200 to install, according to officials of General Motors Corp. and Ford Motor Co. According to one study for an air bag manufacturer, as many as 6 million car owners would have deactivated their air bags if allowed to do so without government approval.
Under the final rule, a car owner would request an application from the government and would receive a form along with information on the risks of disabling an air bag. The owner would “self-certify” that he or she qualifies, and submit the form for NHTSA approval. The agency would send the owner an authorization letter allowing a mechanic to install the switch.
Although mechanics must notify NHTSA of installations, the agency has no practical way of verifying the claims made by car owners who request the switch, according to administration and industry officials.
Acceptable reasons for putting in a switch would include having to sit too close to the steering wheel because of small physical stature, or the need to use the front seat to ferry several children. Tests show that drivers or passengers who sit within 12 inches of an air bag are at risk of injury on deployment.
Cut-off switches are now available only on two-seat vehicles, such as the Ford Ranger and Chevrolet C/K pickup trucks. Manufacturers have been building their inventories in anticipation of the rule allowing multi-seat vehicles, such as sedans and minivans, to be outfitted with the devices.
Air bags became an issue almost two years ago with reports that air bags were killing some children and small adults in low-speed crashes. Over the past decade, 87 people - 49 children and 38 adults - have died from air bag injuries. This prompted the government to re-examine assumptions about the safety of the air bag, once touted as the key passive protection device in auto crashes.
But auto safety experts have since found that air bags work well only when they are used with seat belts and basic safety practices - such as seating small children in the back seat of a car.
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