Airbag Switches Not Safest Option (335)

KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — A new law allows motorists more likely to be hurt by airbags to turn them off, but there are better ways to reduce the risk, a University of Tennessee engineer who studies airbag injuries said Thursday.

 Dr. Tyler Kress said smaller drivers who must sit closer to the dashboard to reach floor pedals can be seriously hurt when airbags inflate.

New rules passed Tuesday allow motorists at risk from airbags — including short adults and those who have a child that must ride in the front seat — to have an on-off switch installed starting Jan. 19.

 But Kress said the safer option is to keep the airbag, install pedal extenders or choose a car design that allows the driver to sit further from the dash, and wear seatbelts.

 Children should wear seatbelts and sit in the backseat if possible. If they must sit up front, they should wear belts, not be allowed to lean forward, and sit as far as possible from the dash.

 “The legislation to allow consumers to disengage airbags is reasonable, but there are other things you can do that are more viable, safer alternatives than disengaging your airbag,” said Kress, who heads UT-Knoxville’s Engineering Institute for Trauma and Injury Prevention. “Education is more important than cutoff switches.”

 Kress said more injuries will occur with on-off switches because some motorists not at risk from airbags will forget to turn them back on. And though airbags have injured or killed smaller motorists and children, they also have protected people in those groups, he said.

 However, it might be hard to prove more injuries are caused by absence of airbags, Kress said. It is easier to study how airbags work in real accidents than to prove how they might have worked in a situation where they were not used, he said.

 “Trying to understand what kind of injuries would or would not have occurred under a certain situation takes a lot of research, accident reconstruction, and investigation,” Kress said. “The data will be difficult to discern.”

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 Contact: Dr. Tyler Kress (423-974-3982)