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Letter to the Editor
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Friday August 3

NHTSA Survey Shows Air Bag Cutoff Switches Not Being Used Properly

WASHINGTON -- A study of vehicles equipped by the manufacturer with air bag cutoff switches has revealed widespread misuse endangering nearly half the front seat child passengers under 13, the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) reported.

Even though passenger side air bags have saved more than a thousand lives, there are some people who should not be exposed to an air bag deployment. As of April 1, 2001, NHTSA is aware of 104 deaths of children attributed to the force of a deploying air bag. In 1995 NHTSA issued a rule allowing manufacturers to install an on-off switch for the passenger air bag in vehicles that cannot accommodate a rear-facing child seat anywhere except in the front seat, such as pickup trucks and cars either with no rear seats or with small rear seats.

The survey released today showed that 48 percent of the air bags were left on for child passengers 1-12 years old, potentially exposing these children to serious injury or death from the force of deployment. In most of these cases, the drivers erroneously told interviewers air bags needed to be turned off only for babies, or for children younger than their passenger -- or they left the switch on all the time, thinking air bags were safe for all of their passengers.

Drivers transporting infants achieved the highest, although still not perfect, success: 91 percent turned off the passenger air bags and only 9 percent left them on (two drivers in the survey, both driving someone else's truck, an unfamiliar vehicle).

The survey also uncovered a problem that occurs when drivers ride with adult passengers. While 82 percent of the switches were on, as they should be, 18 percent were switched off. Many of these trucks often transport children, and owners kept the switch turned off permanently to guarantee their child would not be exposed to deployments. However, this deprived the adult passengers of any potential benefits of air bags. When the three passenger age groups are combined, the on-off switch was misused 27 percent of the time.

The survey report concludes that NHTSA and its partners must increase efforts to educate the public on the dangers of air bags to toddlers and pre- teens, and their benefits for adults. This needs to be a continuing effort, because as of July 1, 2001, there were approximately 10.2 million pickup trucks on the road with the switches, and pickup trucks tend to remain in use for many years. NHTSA and the industry must press ahead with advanced air bags that minimize dangers to children automatically, without requiring action by motorists, the report said.

The survey was conducted in four states -- California, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas -- because they have the nation's highest rates of newer light truck registrations and because they represent diverse geographic locations. A total of 1,637 interviews were conducted at the point where the status of the on-off switch was observed. Data collection occurred in a mix of metropolitan and non-metropolitan counties. The survey was limited to the late-model pickup truck models from eight different manufacturers that are equipped with a passenger-side air bag. Other vehicles with after-market air bag on-off switches, and other vehicles with original equipment on-off switches, such as sports cars and cargo vans, were not included.

Preliminary results of the survey are available at http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov/cars/rules/regrev/evaluate.

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