Safety Agency Issues Warning on Air Bag Danger to Children

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

NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez said, “Don’t gamble with your child’s life, regardless of whether the vehicle has an air bag or not. Make it a hard and fast family 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 infant seat in front of an air bag. Today’s action broadens that warning to include older children and even adults who may be riding unrestrained.

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

Martinez also announced that next week NHTSA will issue a request for public comment on overall air bag performance to better understand their crash experience. The comments received will be the basis for any actions that may be necessary to improve motor vehicle occupant protection.

He pledged that this action would be handled expeditiously and include the motor vehicle industry, safety and medical organizations, individual citizens and others interested in the issue. “My charge to the agency staff and other participants will be to take stock of where we are today, determine what actions may be necessary to improve the safety of the American public, and set a course to take action quickly.”

Martinez, a board-certified emergency physician, explained that children are very different 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 the added risk and make a fundamental decision that children will not ride without a seat belt or child safety seat. Preferably, they should ride in the back seat which is a much safer environment 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 saving more than 900 lives since they were introduced in the late 1980s. But NHTSA is aware of six crashes, some of which occurred at low speeds, in which a child riding in the front seat without a lap/shoulder belt was killed when the air bag deployed. In two other crashes, infants riding in a rear-facing child seat also were killed when the air bags truck the child seat and caused head injuries.

The lap and shoulder belt in combination with air bags is about 50 percent effective in preventing fatal injuries compared to being unrestrained. However, Martinez stressed that it is important for the public to understand that no safety device is a panacea and that deaths 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 fatalities involved unbelted or improperly belted children. Because of pre-crash braking, they probably 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 against structures within the vehicle.

“It is alarming that after years of unprecedented national awareness about the importance of seat belts, and belt use laws in all but two states, that 40 percent of children still ride unprotected, without the critical protection of a seat belt or child safety 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 seat passenger air bags in all passenger cars and light trucks by 1999. But air bags already are standard equipment, at least on the driver-side, in most passenger vehicles sold today. The seat belt, which provides protection in all kinds of crashes, is the primary and most essential item of safety equipment.

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

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