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NOTE: Some motorists have been requesting that their repair shop disconnectairbags. The current status of the law governing this can be found at the NHTSA web site.

Safety Agency Issues Warning on Air Bag Danger toChildren

The head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) warned thatchildren who are not protected by a seat belt could be injured seriously or killed by anair bag, and in the strongest possible terms urged parents to insist that their childrenride belted in the back seat whenever possible.

NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez said, "Don't gamble with your child'slife, regardless of whether the vehicle has an air bag or not. Make it a hard and fastfamily rule that the vehicle doesn't move unless all occupants are belted."

NHTSA repeatedly has issued warnings of the dangers of placing a rear-facing infantseat in front of an air bag. Today's action broadens that warning to include olderchildren and even adults who may be riding unrestrained.

The safety agency considers air bags to be supplemental frontal crash protection. Theseat belt, which provides protection in all kinds of crashes, is the primary and mostessential item of safety equipment.

Martinez also announced that next week NHTSA will issue a request for public comment onoverall air bag performance to better understand their crash experience. The commentsreceived will be the basis for any actions that may be necessary to improve motor vehicleoccupant protection.

He pledged that this action would be handled expeditiously and include the motorvehicle industry, safety and medical organizations, individual citizens and othersinterested in the issue. "My charge to the agency staff and other participants willbe to take stock of where we are today, determine what actions may be necessary to improvethe safety of the American public, and set a course to take action quickly."

Martinez, a board-certified emergency physician, explained that children are verydifferent physiologically than adults and more vulnerable to injury in a crash."Parents and others who drive children ages 12 and under need to be aware of theadded risk and make a fundamental decision that children will not ride without a seat beltor child safety seat. Preferably, they should ride in the back seat which is a much saferenvironment in a crash."

"If a child must ride in the front seat, move the seat back as far as it will goto put as much distance as possible between the child and the air bag," he added.

He said that air bags have a good overall safety record and credited them with savingmore than 900 lives since they were introduced in the late 1980s. But NHTSA is aware ofsix crashes, some of which occurred at low speeds, in which a child riding in the frontseat without a lap/shoulder belt was killed when the air bag deployed. In two othercrashes, infants riding in a rear-facing child seat also were killed when the air bagstruck the child seat and caused head injuries.

The lap and shoulder belt in combination with air bags is about 50 percent effective inpreventing fatal injuries compared to being unrestrained. However, Martinez stressed thatit is important for the public to understand that no safety device is a panacea and thatdeaths and injuries sometimes occur even when occupants have the benefit of both seatbelts and air bags.

NHTSA crash investigators believe that all of the air bag- related child fatalitiesinvolved unbelted or improperly belted children. Because of pre-crash braking, theyprobably were positioned on or very near the dashboard at the time the air bag deployed.They were injured by the force of the deploying air bag or by being propelled againststructures within the vehicle.

"It is alarming that after years of unprecedented national awareness about theimportance of seat belts, and belt use laws in all but two states, that 40 percent ofchildren still ride unprotected, without the critical protection of a seat belt or childsafety seat. Seventy-two percent of children who were injured fatally in the front seat ofa motor vehicle were riding unrestrained," Martinez said.

NHTSA's Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208 requires driver and front seatpassenger air bags in all passenger cars and light trucks by 1999. But air bags alreadyare standard equipment, at least on the driver-side, in most passenger vehicles soldtoday. The seat belt, which provides protection in all kinds of crashes, is the primaryand most essential item of safety equipment.

As part of NHTSA's plan to open a public dialogue on air bag performance, Martinez saidhe would solicit the support of NHTSA's many highway and motor vehicle safety partners toensure that even more is done to educate the public on the absolute need for seat beltuse, and encourage such measures as tougher state seat belt use laws.

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