Testimony of Jim Hall, Chairman
National Transportation Safety Board
before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation
United States Senate
Regarding Air Bag Safety
Washington, D.C., April 29, 1997
Good afternoon, Chairman McCain and Members
of the Committee. It is a pleasure to represent the National Transportation
Safety Board today on the issue of air bag safety.
We are faced with a situation in which there
is increasing public concern about air bags and urgent questions
regarding the effectiveness and the potential danger of these
life-saving devices. I know this because my agency hears from
concerned citizens every week.
For example, a woman in California wrote: "We
station wagon. Since we have four children, one
must ride in the front seat. The car is equipped with a passenger-side
air-bag. We understand that it is not safe for our children to
ride in the front seat
. Are our children safer in the center
of the front seat instead of the passenger seat? Is there a way
to have a passenger-side air bag disabled? Is that advisable?
We are deeply concerned for our children's safety. That is why
we paid extra for the passenger-side air bag in the first place.
Please let us know how we can work with what we have most safely?"
And we received this letter from Indiana. "I
am a 74-year-old female, slightly under five feet tall and weighing
between 100 and 102 pounds
. Because I must sit so close
to the steering wheel when driving, I have been concerned about
my safety despite always wearing my seatbelt
. We are happy
with our [car] but I would appreciate any assurance you could
give me that the government-required safety feature will not result
in my death or serious injury."
These examples present a vivid picture of the
scope and depth of the public's concern. The National Transportation
Safety Board convened a 4-day Public Forum in mid-March to discuss
concerns related to the role of air bags, who is vulnerable to
injuries, experience with air bags in other countries, and to
address ways to increase seatbelt and child restraint use. The
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) participated
in the Forum, along with representatives from Australia, Canada,
Europe, the automobile industry, air bag suppliers, insurance,
safety and consumer groups, and family members. Many of the issues
that you asked me to address in my testimony today were discussed
at the Forum. We plan to publish the proceedings of the Forum,
along with the Board's assessment of the information this summer.
But today, I would like to focus on certain
points that became clear from our discussions at the Forum.
We are dealing with a difficult problem that
will require hard work and a sustained effort by everyone. There
is no quick or simple solution. But until a final solution is
found, at a minimum, the American people deserve the facts.
The "one size fits all" approach
to air bag design is obsolete. Air bags need to be designed to
protect all people in a variety of crash situations. Even the
average sized adult male needs a different level of air bag deployment
in a 60-mile-per-hour crash into a tree than he does if his vehicle
hits that same tree at 25 miles per hour. Advanced air bag designs
will tailor deployment based on the specifics of the crash. For
example, advanced air bag designs may include sensors that can
tell an occupant's proximity to the air bag compartment, the severity
of the crash, and whether the person's seatbelt is buckled. It
was clear from our Public Forum, however, that advanced air bag
technology will not be available for several years. The large
number of possible seating positions and crash scenarios complicate
the development of both the occupant sensors and crash sensors.
For instance, automobile manufacturers need to be sure that if
a properly positioned occupant is reading a newspaper, that the
newspaper does not fool the system into thinking that it is an
out-of-position occupant, thus suppressing the air bag.
Advanced air bags will not significantly improve
the lifesaving potential of air bags. Rather, they will reduce
the severity of air bag-induced injuries. Advanced air bag technology
also will not solve every problem that we are seeing in today's
air bag population. It is unlikely that there will be an air bag
design that will permit a parent to place a rear facing infant
in the front passenger seat. The air bag will either need to be
suppressed, that is turned off, or deflected somehow away from
the infant. Although the Safety Board would like to see NHTSA
develop a timetable for implementation of advanced air bag technology,
this will need to be a very flexible schedule. New and more advanced
technologies will continue to evolve. Clearly, NHTSA has a difficult
job on its hands to anticipate what technology will be available
and when. It is even more difficult to mandate when such technology
should be made available on cars.
A companion issue to advanced air bag technology
involves the determination of which crashes are severe enough
to warrant an air bag deployment. In September 1996, the Board
asked NHTSA to evaluate the effects of higher deployment thresholds,
because air bags were killing children and adults in low severity
crashes where other vehicle occupants sustained minor or no injuries.
The Safety Board is not aware of any action by NHTSA on this recommendation.
The evidence presented at the Board's public forum indicates a
consensus that the level of crash severity required for the air
bag to deploy needs to be raised. However, as often occurs in
the real world, there may be some tradeoffs associated with making
The obvious tradeoff is that if you raise the
threshold from 12 miles per hour into a concrete barrier to 15
miles per hour into the same barrier, there is a range of crashes
between 12 and 15 miles per hour where occupants would no longer
have the air bag available for added protection. This is a range
where some unbelted occupants are likely to receive moderate facial
bone fractures from contact with the steering wheel or instrument
panel. However, as the Safety Board has stated, reasonable tradeoffs
must be made in order to minimize the risk of fatally injuring
a child or adult.
The data on air bag induced injuries from other
countries is very limited compared to the United States. However,
emerging trends from other countries do not show the injury problem
that we have seen in this country. The difference in other countries
would appear to be due to their higher use of seatbelts, higher
air bag deployment thresholds, and lower energy air bags.
Mr. Chairman, as you will recall, the subject of lower energy air bags, or depowered air bags, is one we have testified on previously. At this point, NHTSA has modified its unbelted test requirement to permit manufacturers to install lower energy or less aggressive bags. By July we should begin seeing cars on the road with these less aggressive air bags. But will the consumer know if the car they are buying has a depowered air bag? There was no clear consensus at the Board's Forum that this information would be passed along to the consumers, and some attendees wondered if consumers would understand what the implications were for them. There is still a risk of injury if you are seated too close to a depowered air bag.
The most touching moment in the Forum occurred
when the three witnesses who had real-life experiences with air
bags, both positive and negative, remarked that we need to put
children first in the design of automobile safety equipment. This
is long overdue with regard to seatbelt systems. The difficulties
that parents have faced buckling the car's seatbelt around their
child's safety seat are only now being addressed through NHTSA
rulemaking. The Safety Board believes that this process must be
made simpler and more uniform across vehicles.
With regard to cars on the road today, children
need to be in the back seat, everyone needs to be buckled up and
seated away from the air bag. Mr. Chairman, there was unanimous
agreement among the Forum participants that children should be
seated in the back seat of the car whenever possible. However,
the back seat is not designed for children. The Safety Board would
like to see integrated seats for children who have outgrown child
safety seats, center lap shoulder belts, and adjustable upper
anchorages in the back seat.
However, kids in back and everyone buckled
does not solve the problem that the air bags in the approximately
60 million cars on the road may still cause injury. The letters
that we have received since the Public Forum indicate fear, anger,
and confusion. The NHTSA owes it to the American people to move
quickly on a decision regarding air bag deactivation and the process
established should be simple for the American people to take advantage
of, if they so desire. Along with the right to deactivate also
must come an effective education program on just who needs to
deactivate their air bag.
We did not reach consensus at the forum regarding
who is vulnerable to injury from air bags, thus it is difficult
to say definitively who should be advised to deactivate their
air bag. We know that children aged 12 and under, especially if
unrestrained or in rear facing infant seats, are at high risk
of air bag-induced injuries to the head and neck. We also know
that some short-statured drivers and senior citizens are vulnerable.
Driver extremity injuries are common regardless of occupant size
or age. Clearly anyone, driver or passenger, whose seating position
or movement prior to the crash puts them in close proximity to
the air bag as it deploys may sustain significant injury. We also
know that both temporary and permanent impairment to hearing and
vision have resulted from air bag deployment. We believe that
most people who are informed regarding the vulnerability of injuries
will not disconnect their air bag.
Although the Safety Board believes that air
bags are a proven safety device for most properly restrained adults
in severe frontal crashes, we have very limited data on the hundreds
of thousands of people who have survived air bag deployments.
More of this type of information would be useful to determine
who is vulnerable to air bag-induced injury. We need to do a better
job of collecting these vital data.
There was also agreement at our Forum that
we need to plan for the future. If we are promoting increasing
seatbelt use, 85 percent by the year 2000 and 90 percent by the
year 2005, according to the President's plan, then we should be
asking the automobile industry to design air bags primarily for
The message about the importance of wearing
seatbelts was loud and clear at the Forum. Yet, in this country,
the rate of seatbelt use is abysmal compared to other countries.
While about 68 percent of front-seat occupants are observed wearing
seatbelts in the United States, 93 percent of Canadians, 94 percent
of Germans, and 95 percent of Australians are observed wearing
seatbelts in their automobiles. Everyone at the Forum agreed that
we need to get the attention of State leaders to support tough
seatbelt use laws and visible enforcement of those laws. We are
hopeful that this Committee's recent letter to the Governors,
which was co-signed by Secretary Slater and me, and the President's
plan to increase the use of seatbelts, will stimulate action by
the States to increase the level of seatbelt use in this country.
It was agreed that societal attitudes have
to change with regard to seatbelt use. We remain far behind other
countries in seatbelt use, and we pay a high price for it in terms
of lives lost and injuries suffered. Our political leaders need
to take responsibility for tough enforcement programs and consider
financial incentives if we are to raise seatbelt use. Fines for
non-use of seatbelts in Australia average from $70 to $135, and
in most cases include demerit points. The penalty for transporting
an unrestrained child involves an even higher fine -- $120 to
$165 and 3 demerit points. Compare this to a $25 fine with no
points in most States here. In other countries, drivers are held
responsible for their actions. In this country, however, failure
to wear a seatbelt cannot be used against someone in a court of
law in about half of the States.
As this Committee stated in its letter to the
Governors earlier this month, a national seatbealt use of 85 percent
would prevent 4,200 traffic fatalities a year and save thousands
more from serious injury. The Federal share of the medical costs
of crashes is about 60 percent of total public costs. If all States
passed standard enforcement laws and seatbelt use increased to
85 percent, the Federal taxpayer would save almost $1 billion
a year in medical costs. That is in addition to what the States
Federal funding provided to the States for
highway safety have had a very good return on the Federal investment.
For example, the benefits of highway safety programs exceed their
costs by 31 to 1, according to NHTSA. We hope that this Committee
and the Congress will provide an increase in the safety funds
for States when you consider the ISTEA reauthorization.
Historically, it is clear that States respond
more rapidly and more consistently where Federal legislation requires
an understandable action that promotes safety while withholding
Federal-aid funds for noncompliance. Examples where all States
enacted these safety rules include: the National Maximum Speed
Limit Act; the National Minimum Drinking Age Act; and the Commercial
Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1986 that established a single State-issued
commercial driver's license (CDL). Based on recent legislative
progress, it appears that all States will enact zero alcohol tolerance
laws for drivers under age 21 consistent with Federal legislation.
The NHTSA and others have shown that nearly 16,000 young lives
have been saved as a result of these State drinking age laws.
Mr. Chairman, the Safety Board will continue
to do our part and to work with this Committee to promote increased
awareness about the importance of seatbelt and child restraint
use. We will continue to be active in assisting the States in
passing these important legislative initiatives, and we will continue
to monitor developments related to air bags, primary enforcement,
and improved child safety laws.
That concludes my testimony. I will be happy
to respond to any questions you or the Committee Members may have.