Technology

Dangerous lifesavers

Carmakers are modifying the air bags that kill

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 23 1996
Technology

Dangerous lifesavers

Carmakers are modifying the air bags that kill

PATRICIA CHISHOLM December 23 1996

Dangerous lifesavers

Technology

Carmakers are modifying the air bags that kill

There is something wonderfully reassuring about an air bag: with a big pillow for a shield, the chances of walking away from a bad car accident are greatly improved. But Canadian and U.S. consumers are becoming jittery about the proven lifesavers because of unanticipated safety problems that the bags are posing for children and small adults. A string of deaths in the United States and Canada have been attributed to the explosive force of the bags, which have killed passengers as tall as five feet, four inches, even in low-speed accidents. In a particularly horrific case in Idaho late last month, a passenger-side air bag inflated in a fender bender, decapitating a one-year-old girl. “The bags save lives but the concerns about them are legitimate,” says George Iny, president of the Montreal-based consumer organization, the Automobile Protection Association. “There needs to be a far greater emphasis on warnings, and better technology.”

While attributing some of the blame to parents who disregard warnings against putting children in the front seat, or refuse to belt-up, carmakers are developing a new generation of less-explosive air bags, which will be available on many cars in Canada by next fall. And “smart bags,” using technologies such as radar

to take a passenger’s size and position into account, could follow within three years. But Iny says many manufacturers have fallen short when it comes to helping the car-buying public. “It’s not acceptable to tell someone who car-pools five kids in the morning that they can’t use the front seat,” he says. And some manuals warn only about the dangers for young children, Iny adds. But shorter drivers who have to pull the seat forward to reach the pedals, for instance, should be warned to leave enough space for the bag to inflate without causing injury: estimates range from six inches to 12 inches. Otherwise, Iny suggests, the pedals should be altered to provide more clearance, or the air bag deactivated.

Part of the problem is that the nylon bags were originally designed to help protect an average-sized adult who is not wearing a

seat-belt. Exploding from the steering wheel or dashboard at up to 320 km/h, they take just 1/20Ü1 of a second to get in place to prevent a driver or passenger from colliding with a car’s interior surfaces. But if the bag hits a person in the head, instead of the chest, it can do a lot of damage—a child’s skull may be fractured, or an adult’s neck broken. Exacerbating concerns is the fact that the bags can go off in collisions at speeds as low as 15

to 20 km/h. So far, air bags have been blamed for the deaths of at least 32 children and 20 adults in the United States, and one child and two adults in Canada. While most were not wearing seat-belts—which reduce the dangers of air bags for children and small adults—investigators found that the victims would have survived if the bags had not inflated. There is no question, however, that air bags save many more lives than they cost: the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, a U.S. agency, predicts that, as the bags become more common in the coming years, they will save about 1,500 lives a year.

Air bags have never been required under Canadian regulations. The devices started appearing in U.S.-made cars early in the 1990s because U.S. authorities, frustrated by widespread lack of compliance with seatbelt laws, opted for an involuntary restraint

system. (Only about 68 per cent of U.S. passengers buckle up, compared with about 92 per cent in Canada.) By 1993, many cars carried driver-side air bags, in anticipation of U.S. laws that will make them mandatory in new vehicles next September.

The horror stories emerged gradually, but by last spring authorities on both sides of the border were issuing strong warnings about children and small adults. Nicole Pageot, director general of road safety for Transport Canada, says the government has been using brochures, a toll-free hotline and seminars to get the message across: children under 12 should not ride in the front seat of cars equipped with air bags. That is particularly important for infants in rear-facing car seats, because the bag can catapult an infant into the upright portion of the seat. Small adults should move their seat as far back as possible. And in all cases, bags are safer and

more effective when seat-belts are worn.

The Big Three carmakers, along with Nissan and Toyota, say their 1998 models in Canada will have the slower air bags. Honda Canada has used bags that inflate with less velocity since the early 1990s. In the United States, regulations still call for bags that protect the average-sized, unbelted adult: generally, only high-powered bags meet that test. The North American Big Three also announced new warning labels for all new cars and trucks.

Opting for no air bags—still a possibility with a few, mostly low-end imports—is not the ideal solution, says the APA’s Iny, because bags can be lifesavers in high-speed collisions. For many families, buying a car just got more complicated.

PATRICIA CHISHOLM