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Testimony Before the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, United States Senate, Regarding Air Bag Safety, Washington, DC
Jim Hall
United States Senate, Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Regarding Air Bag Safety, Washington, DC

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 have a … 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 that change.

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 belted occupants.

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 would save.

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.


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