November 18, 1997
After a government investigation, the Department of Transportation announced a new policy which will allow some people to disable their vehicles' air bags. Following a background report, Margaret Warner talks with Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater and then with industry experts about the new policy.
A RealAudio version of this segment is available.
November 18, 1997
The industry experts view of the decision.
April 29, 1997
Margaret Warner talks with two experts on the use and safety of airbags.
November 22, 1996:
A discussion of the federal guidelines for the use of air bags.the safety issues surrounding air bags.
Browse the NewsHour's coverage of transportation issues.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration page on airbags.
PHIL PONCE: Air bags deploy at speeds as high as 200 miles per hour. At this demonstration last spring, the windshield of a brand new Pontiac Sunbird was shattered. The sheer force of air bags has brought their safety into question in recent years. Government investigations have found that air bags have caused 87 deaths, including 49 children and infants who were riding in the front passenger seats. Last weekend, a three-year-old sitting in the front seat on the lap of an adult passenger was killed in a crash in North Carolina.
A new policy.
The new policy announced today will permit some people to disable their vehicle's air bags--including those who drive car pools and need to place children in the front passenger seat and those who own cars with no back seat. Other exemptions will be given for short drivers who have to sit closer than ten inches from the steering wheel and for people with special health problems who might be harmed by their car's air bags. To receive a special permit, a car owner will have to apply to the federal Department of Transportation and simply say he or she qualifies for an exemption. That permit authorizes a car dealer or mechanic to install a cut-off switch. The switch is expected to cost $150 to $200. Both government officials and other experts agree that most people should not disable their car's air bags.
JANET DEWEY, AIR BAG SAFETY CAMPAIGN: A limited number of people may want to consider having an on/off switch installed, but most families will be safer with the air bags if they can follow the recommended safety steps: (a) always slide the seat back and sit back; (b) buckle everyone; and (c) children twelve and under properly restrained in the back seat.
PHIL PONCE: Federal statistics show air bags have saved more than 2600 lives since the mid-1980's, when automobile manufacturers began installing them. Six years ago, Congress required all cars, trucks, and mini-vans sold in the United States to have both driver and passenger side air bags by 1998. An estimated 50 million vehicles now have them. Consumers can apply immediately for the permits to disable air bags. The switches will be available beginning January 19th.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater.
MARGARET WARNER: Joining us first is Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater. Welcome, Mr. Secretary.
RODNEY SLATER, Secretary of Transportation: Thank you, Margaret.
MARGARET WARNER: How many people should take advantage of these new rules?
RODNEY SLATER: Well, we don't know exactly how many people will apply, but our recommendation is that only a few. What we've done is to identify those who are at risk, meaning certain profiles, those who are short-statured adults, those who can't put their children--all of them--in the back seat and have to put some in the front seat; those who might have a medical condition or something of the kind that would necessitate their not being able to be 10 inches away from the steering wheel; those kinds of things. With that as background we are suggesting to most people that they not take advantage of the on/off switch, but if they have to, then we've made that opportunity available.
MARGARET WARNER: How tightly will these applications be scrutinized? For instance, there's a family with children, they can all sit in the back seat, but the mother likes one of them in the front seat. Can they go ahead and apply for that?
RODNEY SLATER: That's really not a justification. If they can all fit in the back seat, then we encourage all families to put them in the back seat. But if you have a situation where a small child--because of some medical condition--has to be in the front seat, then that is the kind of occasion, opportunity that would qualify. The bottom line, though, is to put all children in the back seat, to be away from the steering wheel ten inches or more, as often as possible, and to use this opportunity to maximize the benefits of the air bag but minimize the risk.
MARGARET WARNER: But would this essentially be an honor system, I mean, people make an application--
RODNEY SLATER: It's definitely an honor system. We will make a determination about whether all the information that's requested is on the application. But we do expect people to act responsibly because this is a safety matter and it's in some instances a life or death decision.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Now, we saw in the taped setup the little switch. How will it work? In other words, will it be on/off at will? If you went to have the switch installed--
RODNEY SLATER: It's on/off at will. We do provide for the need for what we call a tail-tail light or an amber light, which would show whether the seat belt--or the on/off switch is actually on. And so that will be helpful for individuals who maybe get into a car that's not their own or may purchase a car that was owned by someone else, and they've utilized the opportunity to purchase the on/off switch.
MARGARET WARNER: What about new cars, will this be installed in new cars?
RODNEY SLATER: No. You have to make the request. It's a very simple application process. It is one page. The information is then sent to the Department of Transportation. We check to see if all the information is there, respond expeditiously, and then an automobile owner can go to the manufacturer or a service center and get the on/off switch installed.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you see any liability problems here?
RODNEY SLATER: That's something that we took into account, but our chief focus was providing for the safest travel environment possible. And that's why we've taken a common sense approach where we balance the interests and where we keep the public's interest as first and foremost. We know that the public is given the opportunity, given the tools, where they can exercise reason and reflection and responsibility to do so. And that's the kind of program that we've set up. Again, we want to maximize the benefits, preserve the benefits, and minimize the risk.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. But let's say someone gets in as a passenger in a car. Is it up to the--that's been deactivated--is it up to the driver to tell the passengers, by the way, we've deactivated the front air bag, or is it something that the passenger is supposed to look over and see that the light's on?
RODNEY SLATER: Well, if the driver has actually, you know, deactivated the air bag, then it should be the responsibility of the driver to inform those individuals who he or she would share a ride with, but again our focus was not so much liability but on education and giving people the tools to make major decisions in the best interest of their families and in the best interests of themselves or individuals who might share a ride with them.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, there are some air bags, are there not, in some cars that have had no safety problems at all, that are smarter air bags, is that right? Explain that to us briefly.
RODNEY SLATER: There are some--we have different types of air bags, but there's really no evidence that suggests that any one air bag is more--is safer than another. What we propose, you know, providing the on/off switch opportunity for those who meet the profile, but more importantly educating people without the safety benefits of air bags and providing them an opportunity to maximize those benefits, minimize the risks.
MARGARET WARNER: Some consumer groups have been critical, saying that more information could be given about the nature of the air bag in a given car, that it would help people make this decision a little if they had more information. Are you going to require that at all?
Mr. Slater: "The best thing for people to do is to buckle up themselves, their children. If their children are below the age of 12 to put them in the back seat of the automobile...."
RODNEY SLATER: Well, we continue to do research on air bags. We have an effort underway to actually work with the industry to construct what we call an advanced air bag. And so we will continue to work in that regard, but again just moving the air bag issue to the side, the best thing for people to do is to buckle up themselves, their children. If their children are below the age of 12 to put them in the back seat of the automobile, if it's a small child put them in the back seat, make sure that they are secure, those are the things that we really have to focus on, but for those families that need the on/off switch we want to provide that opportunity but allow them to make a decision based on reason and reflection and responsibility.
MARGARET WARNER: And how far away do you think we are from a day in which the--somehow the air bag is sensitive either to the impact, the speed, even the weight, or the height of the person sitting in the front seat? I mean, are we getting to that, or is the on/off switch going to be kind of the technology?
RODNEY SLATER: No. The on/off switch is just something that gets us through a transition period. We actually have a very comprehensive approach underway where we've allowed for the de-powering of certain air bags and in the 1998 models most automobile dealers will be able to provide for that, and then in the future we're moving towards the advanced air bag. We hope to have a proposed rule making by the middle of next year with the construction of the air bag, advanced air bag shortly thereafter.
MARGARET WARNER: All right. Great. Thanks, Mr. Secretary.