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The A-to-Z of Auto Safety: Air Bags to ZZZZZZ

November 22, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ On the eve of the year’s biggest travel weekend, auto safety advocates are pushing everything from air bags to keeping people from catching Z’s at the wheel to prevent highway deaths.

Groups ranging from the heavily funded Insurance Institute for Highway Safety to the volunteer-run Motor Voters issued statements or held news conferences Tuesday designed to promote safety.

More than 400 people die on the nation’s highways each Thanksgiving Day weekend - there were 438 fatalities last year, down from a high of 764 in 1968.

At a Washington seminar on Sleep Loss and Driving Safety, experts said sleep plays a key role in up to 400,000 traffic accidents a year.

More than 20 percent of all drivers have fallen asleep at the wheel at least once, said William C. Dement, director of a sleep disorders clinic at Stanford University.

Dement said adults can build up a ″sleep debt″ that grows larger if they avoid needed sleep over several days and that Americans generally don’t get enough sleep. A lack of needed sleep can impair driving, he said.

Charles Czeisler of Boston’s Brigham and Women’s Hospital said family get- togethers often keep Thanksgiving weekend travelers from getting enough sleep before they head for the road. He said some sleep-deprived drivers will become aware they are operating ″on automatic pilot, but they just won’t be able to respond to warning signals in time.″

Meanwhile, a spokesman for the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration responded to three auto safety and consumer groups who accused the agency of failing to promote and enforce auto air bag rules.

Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety and Motor Voters criticized both the government and the auto industry at a news conference to promote air bags, which are expected to be in one-third of the 10 million 1990 cars to be sold in the United States.

The agency has required air bags or automatic front seat belts in all 1990 cars.

NHTSA spokesman Barry McCahill said the agency has made the promotion of all types of occupant protection its ″number one priority.″

A Virginia woman, appearing at the news conference with the safety coalition, said she survived a 110 mph head-on collision because an air bag popped out of her steering wheel.

″It’s truly good to be here, literally,″ said Denise Rusk of Kilmarnock, Va., who said she could not remember what happened after a Ford station wagon crossed into her lane on Sept. 22, 1988, and smashed head-on into her car. Both cars were going 55 mph, putting the force of the impact at 110 mph.

Showing no sign of her injuries, Mrs. Rusk said she had 36 broken bones, but the air bag prevented her from slamming into the steering wheel and ashboard of her new Chrysler LeBaron convertible. The driver of the other car, which did not have an air bag, was killed.

It’s probably too late for anyone to change the family car for the weekend trip, but the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety on Tuesday released its first ranking of cars according to the likelihood of a rider dying in one of them.

The analysis, based on traffic accidents involving 1985-87 models over three years ending in 1988, covers the 103 most popular cars sold in America.

Chevrolet Corvette showed the highest death rate per 10,000 vehicles registered.

Volvo’s 740/760 had the lowest death rate.

The results show large cars generally were safer and small cars more dangerous, but there were exceptions and results varied widely among car sizes and among different models of the same car.

The institute used a complex formula to predict what death rate might be expected according to size, typical driver age and driver sex.

Based on this, nine cars performed far better than predicted: Nissan Sentra two-door, Volvo 740/760 four-door, Volkswagen Jetta four-door, Ford Taurus station wagon, Honda Prelude, Chevrolet Cavalier station wagon, Ford Escort station wagon, Toyota Celica and Toyota Cressida four-door.

Seven cars performed far worse than predicted: Chevrolet Chevette four- door, Plymouth Reliant four-door, Chevrolet Celebrity two-door, Dodge Aries four-door, Chevrolet Corvette, Chrysler LeBaron four-door, and Chevrolet Sprint two-door.

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