AIR BAG ACTIVATION
APRIL 29, 1997
Margaret Warner resports on using and choosing air bags. She is joined by Lou Camp, the director of Automotive Safety & Engineering Standards for Ford Motor Company, and John Merline, Washington bureau chief for Investor's Business Daily. He's covered the air bag controversy for the last seven years.
JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, using and choosing air bags, and to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Yesterday, members of Congress witnessed firsthand the power of an air bag. The demonstration, organized by the American Automotive Industry, was intended to show how well air bags can protect passengers. But the force with which it deployed shattered the windshield of the brand new Pontiac Sunbird. Air bags inflate at an average speed of 200 miles per hour. The federal government says air bags have saved nearly 2,000 lives since the mid 1980's, when automakers began installing them voluntarily, mostly on the driver's side of cars and trucks. Six years ago Congress mandated that by 1998 air bags be installed on the driver and passenger sides of all cars, trucks, and mini-vans sold in the U.S., but last fall the government reported that air bags had caused the deaths of 51 people over the last five years, many of them infants and children riding in front passenger seats. That number has since climbed to 63 deaths. Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, or NHTSA, announced a five-part proposal last November to reduce that risk. In a NewsHour appearance he explained the agency's thinking.
RICARDO MARTINEZ, M.D., Highway Safety Administration: (1996) We need to make sure people are back and allow that air bags to deploy. What we did today was to put out a comprehensive strategy to address the problems today and to improve the safety for tomorrow.
MARGARET WARNER: Some steps have been instituted already, such as requiring warning labels on dashboards and child car seats and letting automakers immediately begin reducing the force of air bags on new cars. By 1999, all new cars must carry lower-powered air bags. But one part of the proposal remains unresolved--under what circumstances air bags can be deactivated altogether. Currently, consumers may deactivate them themselves if they know how. But a mechanic may do so only after a cumbersome process that involves a doctor's letter to NHTSA and NHTSA's written authorization to the owner and mechanic. NHTSA officials are now considering such options as letting mechanics and dealers disconnect air bags simply at the motorist's request, or installing cut-off switches for air bags that a motorist could use at will. The National Transportation Safety Board held hearings on the deactivation issue last month.
JOHN GRAHAM, Harvard Center for Risk Analysis: (March 17) We cannot say with confidence that air bags saved more of these children than they killed.
MARGARET WARNER: This week Martinez came to Capitol Hill to take questions on the issue.
RICARDO MARTINEZ, M.D.: The deactivation, I'll tell you, it's a much more complex issue for us. We have probably had the most number of comments to the docket since I've been here, over 500 separate comments to the docket, with issues to be raised and resolved through deactivation. We are I think getting very close to moving forward with this proposal in a final form that balances the issues that have been raised and does--comes out with a solution that will work for everyone.
MARGARET WARNER: NHTSA is expected to announce a decision next month.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, with differing views on how to address the new air bag concerns we're joined by Lou Camp, the director of Automotive Safety & Engineering Standards for Ford Motor Company, and John Merline, Washington bureau chief for "Investor's Business Daily." He's covered the air bag controversy for the last seven years. Welcome, both of you. John Merline, before we get into the issue of deactivation, how effective do you think air bags are?
JOHN MERLINE, Investor's Business Daily: Unfortunately, air bags as a safety technology I think have been oversold for more than 20 years. When they were first proposed as a safety device, consumers were told that air bags would cut fatality rate by 40 percent. It turns out that figure is much lower. It's now around 9 percent overall. Now there are other problems that have cropped up, and these were known at the time, but were dismissed, and that's that air bags don't work for everybody. About 25 percent of the population gets little or nothing from air bags. Children under age 13, seniors over age 70, according to the government's own research, may be at increased harm from air bags. And short drivers also may be at some increased risk. Now, the concern is that if some people were to disconnect, they might lose some value, but you have to be careful. The fatality reduction even among those who are protected by air bags is fairly small. It's comparable to a padded dashboard or a collapsible steering wheel, about which people don't really say much.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Lou, Camp, what's your sense or what's your assessment of the effectiveness of air bags? Were they oversold?
LOU CAMP, Ford Motor Company: (Dearborn, MI) No, I don't believe so, and as Dr. Martinez said yesterday, the data indicates they work very well, particularly when used with safety belts, as they're intended. Over 1900 lives have been saved as a result of the 50 some million air bags that are in use today. And I think the problems that have been indicated through Dr. Gram's analysis really aren't problems, but they represent opportunities for us to further improve the effectiveness of air bags through education and, of course, new technology.
MARGARET WARNER: And would you include greater access to deactivating air bags as part of that?
LOU CAMP: Pardon me.
MARGARET WARNER: As part of that.
LOU CAMP: No. We're concerned, frankly, that the deactivation, if undertaken on a broad basis, would, unfortunately, put a lot of people into risk that they really don't expect to be in. We think--we're all for choice and people should have a choice as to whether to use their air bag, but it needs to be an informed choice. And right now we're afraid that most people are misinformed about the benefits of air bags. We think they should only be disconnected in special cases where there's a significant medical reason to do so, such as a need for a rear-facing child to be in the driver or the passenger seat for medical reasons. And the government right now is granting disconnections in those cases. They've approved about 1200 disconnections so far. They're turning 'em over in about two weeks. And we think that process is working extremely well and should be maintained. We would propose, though, that the disconnect procedure would have better record keeping characteristics, recognize some of the dealer concerns of liability, and have only manufacturers recommended procedures for disconnection. We don't want people going in and snipping wires.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. John Merline, what's your view on deactivation and how it should work?
JOHN MERLINE: Well, a couple of points. One is as everybody says, air bags save 1800 lives, or have saved 1800 lives. They've also killed 63 people. As that demonstration showed, an air bag is a very powerful instrument. Now, if you think about that, that's--for every 30 people an air bag has saved, it's killed 1 person. That's not a very good ratio. There's another question, and that--let's say I make--
MARGARET WARNER: More like for every 300, but anyway, go ahead.
JOHN MERLINE: Let's say I make a mistake and I disconnect an air bag. What extra risk am I facing? As I said, it's a marginal increase in risk comparable to say driving a car 200 pounds lighter. People make those kinds of choices all the time.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that the customer or the consumer, the driver should have the ability to simply, what, go in to a mechanic and say, I want it disconnected, rather than having to get a doctor's note and specific authorization?
JOHN MERLINE: Well, okay, there's a lot of circumstances where--I mean, what NHTSA is saying today is that if you have a certain medical condition, you can get the air bag disconnected. There are a lot of circumstances where there's no medical condition, but where people probably shouldn't have air bags in the car. I'll give you my own example. My wife is five foot tall, and we have two small children. We have a small car. It doesn't have air bags. Twice a week she car pools with another child to preschool. Now some--in that situation, one child must sit in the front seat. It's just not reasonable. You can't put them all in the back seat. So I look at that, and I say, well, nobody is being protected by the air bag there, certainly not the child.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But would you--I take your point that you want deactivation easier, but how much authority or responsibility would you give to the consumer? Would you go so far as to have an on-off switch, or do you think the consumer should still have to go to the mechanic and meet certain criteria, as Mr. Camp suggested?
JOHN MERLINE: I mean, an on-off switch is one way to do it, which kind of takes away this concern that, well, maybe the child sitting there at one point, but then an adult would be sitting there at another point, where it would be protected by the air bag, and an on-off switch overcomes that problem. The question is: again, how much choice should drivers have? Like I say, drivers make decisions about risk all the time. If you drive on a Saturday night, you're at much--at a much greater risk of dying in a car crash.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me get--Mr. Camp, respond to that point, that consumers make these kind of risk assessments in their lives all the time, including in their cars. Why shouldn't they be able to do so for air bags?
LOU CAMP: Well, I think they should. And what we would like to do is to allow them to make those choices with a little bit more information than they have now. As I mentioned, I believe there's a little bit of misperception about the importance of air bags and the importance of buckles, you have to make them effective. And that's why we worked to date to try to make owners of our new cars aware to the extent they buy them today. They'll be shown this card that has instructions on how to belt up and use your safety belts effectively, how to sit back and have proper room, as well as package your child in this proper position, primarily in the rear seat. Interestingly, as you see in the corner of this, we've also gotten Big Bird involved to try to get the message out to our kids; that they should buckle up and sit in the back.
MARGARET WARNER: But --just--
LOU CAMP: In addition, we've worked with a video with young mothers, through pediatricians and doctors, to get the message out on young children and infants, how they should be properly restrained.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. But, Mr. Camp--
LOU CAMP: What I'm saying is education is the key to proper use of air bags.
MARGARET WARNER: But you still believe that--you believe that still an individual should have to get permission from the government on a case-by-case basis.
LOU CAMP: I believe so, because presently customers I believe are misinformed about air bags because I think left to the current level of understanding, potentially millions of customers would come asking for their air bags to be disconnected. And I believe there are clearly not that many people at risk. As I say, there are always special circumstances--a thousand so far--that the government has been fit to disconnect. And the broad disconnection would put many, many people at risk who would benefit from the availability of air bags.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, gentlemen, thank you very much. We'll have to leave it there.