Lowdown on Air Bags
November 22, 1996
Charlayne Hunter-Gault looks at new federal safety guidelines for automobile air bags.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Air bags became mandatory in all cars manufactured after 1979. They are designed to deploy on impact and inflate at a rate of 250 miles per hour. Here's a slow-motion demonstration of what happens.
(Air Bag Deployment Demonstration Clip)
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: We get more now on air bags and their dangers, as well as on the government's five-point plan to change the current rules for them. It comes from Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Thank you, Doctor, for joining us.
RICHARD MARTINEZ, MD, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: Thank you.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What prompted these new guidelines on air bags?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, we all agree that air bags are life-saving devices and are working quite well, but we've found some unacceptable problems, and that is we've had some deaths to children, mostly unbelted, and some small--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: The 30 deaths?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Thirty-one deaths, children. Almost all of them have been unbelted in the pre-breaking phase of the crash. Those children have been thrown up against the dashboard and killed by the air bag. So we've been concerned, and what we did today was put out--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: I'm sorry. You said children, and then you said--
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Some small-statured adults who have been close to the air bag during deployment, but let me just say there's also been some males who've been--including over six-foot tall--who've been close to that air bag by being unbelted or in one case having fallen asleep at the wheel or slumped over at the wheel.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So it's necessary for air bags to work to have the seatbelt fastened before the belt comes out, and that's--is that the big problem?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, that's a big issue, is that the air bag needs room to deploy. And we see that it comes out fast, and so we need to make sure people are back and allow the air bag to deploy. What we did today was to put out a comprehensive strategy to address the problems of the day and to improve the safety for tomorrow.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Let's walk through those, and we can answer some of the questions as we go through the plan and how it's going to make a difference. Let's start with labels. What will they say, and what are they designed to do?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Before we do that, let me just tell you, our approach is three-pronged in that we wanted to put smart air bag technology into future vehicles, starting Model Year 1999, and then for vehicles made between now and that point in time put enhanced warning labels, allow de-powering of the air bags and extend some cutoffs, which is to those cars that don't have a back seat. And for existing vehicles, we are going to improve, hopefully, our education for people so they know the simple things they can do now to still retain the benefits of the air bag but minimize those risks that they have.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: And then also allow some deactivations. I wanted to put out that this is a comprehensive strategy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Right. Well, a lot of what you just said requires a little more explanation.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Absolutely.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: So let's just walk through it, as I said. All right. Labels.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Labels. First off, we think that the current labels that are in your car now are inadequate to warn you of the risk. What we have is proposed back in August and now the final labels show you this one is for the visor to replace existing one--this would go the visor in a down position. We'd also have one that would go in your dashboard when you buy the car, so that you are made aware at the point of sale. We also have another label--this one, which is even more enhanced than the current one on the child safety seat--it would also be moved to be where the child's head is in the child safety seat. The important thing is you should never put a rear-facing child seat in front of a passenger-side air bag because that seat moves the head closer to the point of deployment of that passenger-side air bag. So it's important for people to not only take that step, but we want to improve our warning and education for people.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. And children, you're saying something special about where they should be placed in the cars now, right?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Absolutely. We continue to say--and that the back seat's always the safest place, but especially with the passenger-side air bag. Children under twelve in that passenger-side air bag do not mix. We don't believe you should put a child in front of the passenger-side air bag under 12. Put them in the back seat. It's the safest place, and never put a rear-facing seat in front of a passenger-side air bag.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Now, what about disconnecting the air bags?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, in truth, we believe very few people should take the option of disconnecting it. Right now, there's no--
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Why is that?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Because, you know, there's a lot of concern about the risk right now, but we want to reassure people that air bags are working; they're saving lives. They're very effective. For example, in a potentially fatal crash, that air bag gives you a one in three chances of surviving on the driver's side and one in four on the passenger's side. That's fairly good odds when you're in a potentially fatal crash. And you can't schedule that crash. That happens. So you can't turn it off, you can't turn it on, depending on whether or not you may have crashed that day. But we have to make sure that people can have the opportunity to take those benefits. In truth, we've got some experience lately with a lot of phone calls from people expressing concerns and anxieties about air bags. When we walk them through the benefits of the air bags and talk about things they can do to minimize the risk, their comfort level with the air bag goes up.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. But it's illegal now for garages and dealerships to disconnect the air bags. What's going to change with your plan?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: They cannot do that now. That would be rendering safety equipment inoperative. What our proposal does is allow us to work with dealers and manufacturers to develop a plan that makes sure you are informed of the risk, that you sign papers that then we can keep track of. That then also allows us to put a warning label on the air bag for other occupants. They know that you've disconnected the air bag, and to protect the rights of future owners of that vehicle to know about the activation status of that air bag. So that we have to do this rationally. We would like people to make an informed decision, not a panic decision, So we have proposed allowing people to have remedy on those few cases when they really might have to have it.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How about then the less--the next one is less forceful air bags. We said they come at you at 250 miles an hour.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Right. I mean, that's probably the worst-case scenario. It's like 160 miles an hour, still very strong, and that comes out with the first two or three inches, very strong, and then drops off rapidly. You want to stay back from that. But we also think that we can improve the safety of it, enhance the safety of the air bag by having it deploy with some lower force. We've done studies now with our research program and found that somewhere of 25 to 30 percent allows to really dramatically drop the risk and still provide protection for the unbelted and even improve the protection for the belted occupant.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: What about drivers now, with the current force air bags, what do they do?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: What we're finding is that they save lives. They're very effective. What you need to do is give it room to deploy. You really don't want to be within those first two or three inches. You should be, as you pointed out earlier, buckled up. That's a major problem. You know, if you're not buckled up, you'll move forward. Then make sure you can drive hopefully back from the air bag enough to give it room to deploy.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Okay. Now, number 4 was more sophisticated technology referred to the smart bags before. What's that?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, smart air bag technology tries to rid of the problems we have today. Right now we have one deployment, the air bag goes off, it has a wide range of occupants in different sizes and positions. What smart technology does is basically tailor that deployment. It senses the size and position of the occupant and then adjusts the size of the air bag for that. So what you get is more optimal response in the air bag. It's really the next generation of air bags, but I've got to tell you, it's very, very close. There's a lot of people working on this. There's a lot of competition in the industry for safety. Consumers are demanding safety, so we really have an opportunity to improve safety dramatically, and that's what we did today, was we went to the next quantum leap.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And how soon would this go into effect?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: We are proposing that the phase-in of that technology by 1999, model year 1999.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And people should, nevertheless, feel safe in the interim?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: I believe so. We have 50 million cars with air bags out there right now. We have a very small number of deaths. We think that's an unacceptable number, but people need to realize the perspective in which that's occurring.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: But our reporter, Terry Rubin, went to an industry press conference today, and the industry is saying that they're not sure they can get them done by 2000, get them ready.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, that's phase-in technology, and our rule allows increasing sophistication of air bags, or I should say increasing sophistication of smart air bag technology. We feel strongly that we can introduce this into the fleet by Model Year 1999, but, remember, these are proposals, and the process allows input and dialogue to final crafting of that rule.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Finally, in just the brief time have left, the final one is cutoff switches. Now, what is being proposed about that?
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Currently now, vehicles that don't have a rear seat, that don't allow you to put your child in the rear seat have the option of cutoffs for the air bag now. That is in some vehicles right now. Not everyone's using that. We've now extended the time frame in which they can use that.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: And that goes into effect--
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: That's currently in effect. It just extends the current rule.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: How confident are you that all of these things are going to work? Because the whole idea is to cut down on the rate of death, I'm sure, to eliminate death, and other serious injuries.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Well, this is a serious problem, and I think that--but I wanted to put it in perspective. It is a problem that can be solved by doing the right things today. One of the most important things we can all do in this country is to buckle up and make sure children buckle up. That keeps them not only properly restrained but protects them in all kinds of crashes, not just the frontal crashes. We're talking about air bags in frontal crashes, all directions.
CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: All right. Well, Dr. Martinez, thank you for joining us.
DR. RICHARD MARTINEZ: Thank you.