|Friday, January 24, 1997|
Air bags may save shorter womenBy Noelle Knox / Detroit News Washington Bureau
WASHINGTON -- In a surprising report to Congress, federal safety regulators found that air bags may actually protect short women who wear their seat belts more than tall women.
It's a different story for drivers over the age of 55. Used with a seat belt, air bags are virtually pointless for them, offering no significant reduction in the risk of death or injury.
These are just some of the trade-offs of the controversial safety device.
The findings, based on government analysis of more than 10,000 collisions, contradict recent media coverage about the dangers posed to small women by vehicles equipped with air bags.
The study further shows how evidence about air bags can shift even as the government considers endorsing bags that deploy with less force or allowing consumers to disconnect the devices.
For drivers under 5 feet 5 inches tall who wore their seat belts, air bags cut the risk of serious injury almost in half, compared with just 36 percent for people over 5 feet 8 inches, the report released this week says.
The results may reassure women who have been afraid to drive their cars because the majority of the 19 drivers killed in cars with air bags in the last seven years have been women under 5 feet 5 inches. (Eight of the women killed weren't wearing seat belts.)
Federal regulators have received more than 250 letters, mostly from women, asking permission to disconnect their air bags.
"I don't think it's as big a problem as the media has made it," said Terry Klein, one of the authors of the report by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
"Buckling up and sitting comfortably away from the steering wheel is the best thing you can do."
The report by the NHTSA was presented to Congress last month, but made available this week at the request of The Detroit News.
Automakers point to the congressional report as evidence that regulators shouldn't allow consumers to disconnect air bags without a special reason.
"I would think they are better off leaving their air bags connected," said Lou Camp, director of automotive safety and engineering standards for Ford Motor Co.
Air bags "are innocent until proven guilty," Camp said.
For older drivers, air bags may not be guilty, so much as pointless. Although eight of 19 drivers killed were over 55, Klein said their frail bodies are the more likely cause of death in an accident.
But for the delicate bodies of children, air bags can be lethal.
"Every analysis that includes frontal crashes shows a higher fatality risk for the children in cars with dual air bags than for children in comparable cars without passenger air bags," the report said.
So far, air bags have killed 25 children. The vast majority were not wearing seat belts or were in a rear-facing child seat.
Air bags do what they were designed to do in the 1980s -- save the average person without a seat belt.
"We are finding out ... the benefits for air bags appear to be less than some people thought originally," Ford's Camp said.
Air bags work best in a head-on crash, increasing a driver's chance of survival by 34 percent.
"An air bag alone really can't do the entire job and we need safety belts," Camp said. "Safety belts are the primary source of protection in all accidents and air bags are a supplement."
With a seat belt alone, the chances of surviving a serious head-on accident are 50-50.
The government has proposed reducing the explosive power of air bags by 20 percent to 35 percent, but that is only an interim measure.
Automakers are scrambling to control air bags with sensors that can tell the height, weight and position of the driver and passenger and whether they are wearing their seat belts.
In most accidents, which are not fatal, air bags currently found in cars and trucks seem to help some people more than others.
When used with a seat belt, an air bag cut a man's risk of serious injury by 64 percent, and yet for women it made no difference. Seat belts reduce the risk of injury for women by 59 percent, with or without an air bag.
Surprisingly, for people over 5 feet 8 inches, a safety belt alone provided the most protection against a serious injury. Air bags and seat belts provided the most protection to people weighing less than 135 pounds or more than 179 pounds.
Copyright 1997, The Detroit News