Testimony of
Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Committee on Appropriations
Subcommittee on Transportation and Related Agencies
House of Representatives
Regarding The Dangers of Air Bags to Infants and Small Children
December 19, 1996

Good Morning, Chairman Wolf and Members of the Subcommittees. I appreciate the opportunity to represent the National Transportation Safety Board on a vitally important issue that affects the welfare of so many of our country's children -- the dangers of air bags to infants and small children.

Mr. Chairman, this important safety issue was brought to the forefront in 1994, shortly after the Board initiated a safety study to evaluate the performance of occupant restraint systems for children under the age of 11. More than a year ago the Safety Board issued urgent recommendations to government and industry aimed at ensuring that the public be made aware of the dangers that air bags pose for children. In response, the government/industry air bag safety campaign was founded, a campaign that has and should continue to contribute substantially to efforts to raise public awareness.

In September 1996, the Safety Board adopted its study on the performance and use of occupant protection systems for children -- child restraint systems, vehicle seatbelts, and air bags. This study examined the adequacy of relevant Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS), the comprehensiveness of State child restraint and seatbelt use laws, and the adequacy of public information and education on child passenger protection. To fully discuss the performance of air bags and children, the Board examined the crash experience with passenger-side air bags in general.

The Safety Board believes that air bags are a proven safety device for most properly restrained adults in severe frontal crashes, but can inflict serious or even fatal injuries to small children, even when those children are properly restrained. Because of that, parents should, whenever possible, keep their children in the back seat, properly restrained, and automobile manufacturers and government regulators should work as expeditiously as possible to depower air bags to reduce the risk they pose.

Let me give you details on our safety study. In the 13 vehicle study sample, a child was positioned in the right front seat of a vehicle where the passenger-side air bag deployed. In 6 of the 13 crashes, the child was restrained by a child restraint system, and in 6 the child used the lap/shoulder belt or the lap portion of the lap/shoulder belt. Restraint use could not be conclusively determined in one crash. The head and neck injuries sustained by the children in 9 of the 13 crashes, including 5 fatalities, were directly related to the passenger-side air bag and to the spatial relationship between the inflating air bag and the child. Based on the low to moderate crash severity of most of these crashes and the lack of intrusion into the passenger compartments where the nine children were seated, the Safety Board believes that in each of the crashes, the child would have survived with minor or no injuries had the passenger-side air bag not deployed. The Safety Board believes that the air-bag induced injuries, including fatal injuries, sustained by the nine children in the study sample, should not have occurred regardless of restraint use.

Mr. Chairman, there is sufficient empirical information from the 13 crashes investigated for the Board's study, in which 5 children were fatally injured; from additional air bag crashes where children were killed in Canton, Ohio; Orem, Utah; St. James, Missouri; and Nashville, Tennessee, which were also investigated by the Safety Board; and from the 23 additional fatal crashes involving children investigated by NHTSA since March 1994, for the Safety Board to conclude that passenger-side air bags, as they are currently designed, are not acceptable as a protective device for children.

Current Air Bag Testing Procedures

In the early 1980s, when the air bag testing procedures were being written, it was estimated that only about 15 percent of front seat occupants wore lap/shoulder belts. Accordingly, air bags were originally designed to protect occupants who were not restrained by their lap/shoulder belts. Since the early 1980s, however, there have been concerted efforts to increase the rates of lap/shoulder belt use through public education initiatives and the passage of seatbelt use laws by 49 States. Today, about 67 percent of front seat occupants wear their lap/shoulder belts. As you will recall, Mr. Chairman, this is an issue that was on the Board's original "Most Wanted" list. FMVSS 208, however, still requires that vehicle test procedures be based on unrestrained occupants. In essence, air bags are being designed, because of certification testing requirements, primarily to protect unbelted rather than belted occupants even though the air bags are promoted as supplemental restraint systems and the majority of motor vehicle occupants now use seatbelts.

The speed and force at which the air bag inflates need to be higher to protect unrestrained occupants than restrained occupants. FMVSS 208 requires that vehicles be tested at 30 mph with a 50th percentile male crash test dummy, that is 5 feet 8 inches tall, and 167 pounds.

The Safety Board believes, now that efforts to increase the public's use of seat belts have borne fruit, air bag regulatory standards based on unrestrained occupants are no longer appropriate. The Safety Board is concerned that air bag performance certification testing is not based primarily on belted occupants, that pre-impact braking is not considered in the testing procedures, and that testing is conducted with the seat track only in the middle position. Thus, air bag performance testing is not representative of actual crash environments.

Testing procedures that reflect actual crash environments should result in performance requirements that reduce the speed and force of passenger-side air bag inflation. Consequently, the Safety Board recommended, as a result of our study, that NHTSA immediately revise FMVSS 208 to establish performance requirements for passenger-side air bags based on testing procedures that reflect actual crash environments, including pre-impact braking, out-of-position child occupants (belted and unbelted), properly positioned belted child occupants, and with the seat track in the forward-most position.

While we are pleased that NHTSA recently announced its intention to issue rulemaking on depowering air bags, we are disappointed that NHTSA did not announce how it intends to revise the air bag testing procedures. As a result, it could be close to another year before any changes are made to the air bags in cars being built for the American public. Meanwhile, we add another one million vehicles each month with air bag technology that is not safe for everyone. In fact, one month has passed, and one million additional cars have entered the marketplace with today's technology, since NHTSA announced its intention to issue rulemaking. But the rulemaking still has not been issued.

Reducing the speed and force of the passenger-side air bag alone, however, will not solve the problem of those air bags deploying in low-severity crashes in which the additional protection beyond that afforded by lap/shoulder belts is not needed. Therefore, the threshold of the passenger-side air bag deployment (the minimum level of crash severity at which the air bag will deploy) is also of concern to the Safety Board. According to NHTSA, air bags are designed to deploy in moderate to severe frontal collisions at speeds of about 10-15 mph into a fixed object or about 20-30 mph into a similar sized vehicle. Nine of the 13 crashes investigated for the Board's study were collisions with other vehicles and passenger-side air bag deployment, the change in velocity was less than 20 mph, yet 5 of the 9 children in the right front passenger seats in these crashes sustained serious, critical, or fatal injuries from contact with the passenger-side air bag (2 of the 5 children were in rear-facing child restraint systems). In two additional relatively low-severity crashes for which a change in velocity could not be determined, one child sustained critical injuries and another child died.

The Board believes that these cases support the need for an increase in the deployment thresholds. Consequently, the Safety Board recommended that NHTSA evaluate the effect of higher deployment thresholds for passenger-side air bags in combination with the recommended changes in air bag performance certification testing, and then modify the deployment thresholds based on the findings of the evaluation.

Current Proposals of NHTSA

Advanced Air Bag Technology.

The Safety Board agrees with the intent of NHTSA's proposed plans to expedite installation of intelligent air bag systems and supports NHTSA's plans to establish a timetable to implement intelligent air bag technology. Intelligent air bag technology should moderate or prevent the air bag from deployment if full deployment would pose an injury hazard to a belted or unbelted occupant in the right front seating position, such as a child who is seated too close to the instrument panel, a child who moves forward because of pre-impact braking, or a child who is restrained in a rear-facing child restraint system.

There appears to be agreement in the industry, however, that any technological solutions for intelligent occupant sensing are at least 5 years or more away. There is also agreement in the industry that intelligent air bag systems will not solve the problem of children in rear-facing child restraint systems. Only suppression of the air bag or a restraint system designed to deflect the air bag can do that.

The Board understands the complexity of the efforts to develop technological solutions for air bags and the need for thorough research prior to any proposals for change. However, NHTSA and the industry have been aware of the air bag problem for 25 years, and although they have been working to develop better air bag systems for many years, few vehicles incorporate the technology today.

The Safety Board is concerned that every month about 1 million new cars with passenger-side air bags will be entering the market with the same dangers to children until new technology is available and in place. In meetings with several automobile manufacturers in preparation for the study, the Safety Board noted the length of time that it takes for the automobile manufacturers to prepare for the design, development, production, and installation of new parts. Although it varies depending on the complexity of the part to be added, it takes several years to design, test, and certify new safety components. Rulemaking takes additional time.

For rulemaking completed in 1995 at NHTSA, the average time from publication of the initial notice to publication of the final rule was 16 months. Based on these timeframes, if intelligent air bag technology were available today and FMVSS 208 needed to be modified to accommodate that new technology, it would be a minimum of 3 1/2 years before the technology would be available for purchase by the public. More than 39 million new cars with passenger-side air bags with today's technology will have entered the market during that time period.

The Safety Board is concerned that many parents are not receptive to placing infants in rear-facing child restraint systems in the back seats of vehicles because they cannot see the infant nor monitor the infant's actions from the front seat. NHTSA consumer testing in spring 1996 in conjunction with development of its "Air Bag Alert" brochure found that parents were resistant to having children ride in the back seat of the vehicle. Although the back seat is generally the safest place for children of all ages, some parents will ignore the warnings not to use the rear-facing child restraint system in the front seat of the vehicle with a passenger-side air bag, and others will put the child restraint system in the back seat, but will turn the child restraint system to face forward. Because an infant's neck muscles are not well developed, an infant in a rear-facing child restraint system that is turned to face forward could sustain serious neck injuries as the head moves forward in a frontal crash.

The Safety Board is also concerned that, in spite of the educational efforts planned and already underway, children will continue to be positioned in the front seats of vehicles equipped with passenger-side air bags, and that these children will continue to be in danger whether they are restrained or unrestrained. A November 1995 survey by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) found that even when parents knew that they should not place their children in the right front seat of a vehicle equipped with a passenger-side air bag, 8 percent still placed their child in front of the air bag compartment when they were traveling alone with the child.

Mr. Chairman, many questions have been raised by the public regarding disconnecting their air bags. One way to do this is by the use of air bag cutoff switches. The Safety Board believes that permitting the installation of cutoff switches for vehicles manufactured in the future will not enhance the safety of children for the following reasons:

(1) drivers may choose not to have the switch installed;

(2) as the cars are passed down and sold to the second and third owners, the importance of the switch may be overlooked because as new technology enters the marketplace, activities to make the public aware of the dangers that air bags pose to children will likely be reduced; and

(3) drivers who choose to install the switches are likely to be more safety conscious and to place their children in the back seat.

The Safety Board believes that a solution that requires action on the part of the driver is not likely to be effective and that a more technical requirement is needed.

However, of immediate concern to the Safety Board is the large number of vehicles on the road that are equipped with passenger-side air bags. The Safety Board is concerned that the number of fatalities to children from deploying air bags will continue to increase unless changes are made to the cars on the road with today's air bag technology. Clearly, what is safest for children in cars equipped with air bags (and even cars without air bags) is for children to sit in the back seat of the vehicle. But this is not always practical for parents. In 21 of the 120 crashes in the Board's study, there were three or more children under the age of 11 in the vehicle. If each of these vehicles was equipped with a passenger-side air bag, how does a parent transport these children safely? In today's busy world, does the automobile industry or the federal government have the right to tell parents that if they have a car with an air bag that they can only car pool with three children instead of four? Or only two children if they have a four-passenger car?

The Safety Board believes that NHTSA should determine the feasibility of applying technical solutions for cars currently on the road to prevent air bag-induced injuries to children in the passenger side seating position. NHTSA should consider such solutions as increasing the deployment thresholds of passenger-side air bags, depowering the passenger-side air bag, installing weight sensors in the passenger-side vehicle seat, or deactivating the passenger-side air bag for families who choose to do so. Although we would prefer to see some technological changes made to cars on the road today, we would support allowing owners who chose to do so, to disconnect their air bags.

We do not, however, support optional air bags as a long term solution, because the Safety Board and most representatives of government and industry view air bags as an important life-saving device when used in conjunction with a seatbelt.

The Adequacy of Public Information.

As I mentioned at the outset of my testimony, during the crash investigation phase of the Board's study, we issued several urgent recommendations to ensure that the public is aware of the dangers that air bags pose to children, resulting in the government/industry air bag safety campaign.

In addition to recommending to NHTSA a highly visible, multimedia campaign, the Safety Board issued two urgent recommendations to the 20 domestic and international automobile manufacturers on November 2, 1995 asking them to take immediate action to conduct a mail campaign to registered owners of vehicles equipped with passenger-side air bags and to develop and attach to all new vehicles with passenger-side air bags a visible warning regarding the dangers that air bags pose to children.

On April 30, 1996, the Safety Board added these recommendations to its "Most Wanted" list of safety recommendations. We are pleased that all automobile manufacturers have agreed to send letters to registered owners. We are also pleased that manufacturers will be sending more visible warning labels with these letters or in separate letters. We would like to acknowledge Mercedes-Benz's lead in this area. Mercedes-Benz took action last spring by installing on all new cars a new warning label on the inside of the right front passenger door. Mercedes also made the label available, free of charge, to car owners. NHTSA's new rule to require new and more prominent air bag warning labels inside the vehicle is also in line with the intent of the Board's recommendation.

The Safety Board is concerned, however, that there are no provisions in NHTSA's new rule for improved labels in the vehicles currently on the road. The Board believes that the manufacturers could accomplish this labeling by including labels in their mail campaigns, by installing the labels when the vehicles are serviced at dealerships, by distributing labels at vehicle inspection or service stations, or by including labels in license or insurance renewals.

These are just a few of the ways to get information to the public. Videos, such as the one we discussed last year during our appropriations hearings, and which NHTSA is about to complete and distribute, are also important components of a comprehensive public information program.

NHTSA's August 1996 analysis of crash data, and the Board's study, raise questions about the benefits of currently designed passenger-side air bags to reduce injuries and fatalities to children. Although NHTSA's analysis suggests there may be some benefits from passenger-side air bags to occupants over age 13, the number of children killed and critically injured in crashes similar to those investigated for the study may continue to increase unless immediate action is first taken by NHTSA to determine the benefits of passenger-side air bags as currently designed. The Safety Board recommended in its study that NHTSA immediately evaluate passenger-side air bags based on all available sources, including NHTSA's recent crash testing, in-depth crash investigations, and analysis of crash data from insurance companies. The Board also believes that NHTSA should publicize the findings and modify air bag performance and testing requirements, as appropriate, based on the findings of the evaluation.

In closing, I would like to add that the Safety Board's study found that more than two-thirds of the children in our study sample were not in the appropriate restraint for their age, height, and weight; over half of the children who used child restraint systems were improperly restrained; and about one-quarter of the children who used seatbelts were improperly restrained. The study also found that many State restraint use laws have gaps in them that permit children to be unrestrained or improperly restrained. The Board made recommendations to simplify the design of child restraint systems, to make the back seats of cars more child-friendly, and to strengthen the State laws. These are changes that are long overdue. We should make children our first, not our last, priority when it comes to highway safety.

That concludes my testimony, Mr. Chairman. I would be pleased to respond to any questions you may have.

Jim Hall's Speeches