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Disconnecting air bags could impact insurance discounts

April 9, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Janet Garman is afraid to drive a car with air bags.

The loud bang of an air bag during a 1992 accident left her ears extremely sensitive to noise, she says. So she took matters into her own hands and disconnected the air bags on her new car.

But Garman forgot to tell her insurer, which was giving her a $24-a-year discount because the car was equipped with air bags.

``If they want to charge me that, that’s fine. But it galls me,″ said the Barrington, Ill., woman.

Eric Stork, 70, of Arlington, Va., said he was concerned about his wife’s safety, not auto insurance premiums, when he had both air bags disconnected on a new car.

``I would disconnect the air bags on any car, that’s the first thing I would do,″ said Stork, an auto emissions consultant. The elderly don’t ``have the physical strength of younger people ... when an air bag hits them at 200 miles per hour.″

The auto insurance industry has long promoted air bags by offering discounts. But now a public backlash against air bags, coupled with a Clinton administration proposal to make it easier for drivers to disconnect air bags, could lead insurers to rethink those discounts.

Air bags, once touted as a risk-free feature that could spare the lives of thousands of Americans in head-on collisions, are now a source of worry for many, especially parents of young children, the elderly and short people of all ages.

But by the end of this year, air bags will be mandatory in all new cars. They are credited with saving more than 1,800 lives, but they also are blamed for the deaths of 38 children and 24 adults, often in low-speed accidents they should have survived.

Just last month, the government gave automakers the go-ahead to install less powerful air bags in new cars. And the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is still refining the plan to give drivers the option of deactivating air bags.

Joseph B. Groner, director of corporate relations for Allstate Insurance Co., an early promoter of air bags, said it’s questionable whether companies will keep offering discounts ``if air bag deactivation becomes prevalent.″

From the insurers’ perspective, ``identifying vehicles with disconnected air bags will not be easy,″ Groner wrote the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

The dollars at stake are not huge.

While Ms. Garman got a $24 discount, the average discount for a car with dual air bags is just $15 a year on a premium exceeding $750, according to figures from the industry and state insurance commissioners.

``People don’t realize how little the discount is. It’s just not that much,″ said Jon Laskin, a State Farm agent in the nation’s capital.

It is now illegal for anyone other than the car’s owner to disconnect an air bag. The proposed rule would let drivers sign waivers and get it done at auto shops and dealerships.

Federal safety officials also are exploring the idea of allowing cutoff switches for air bags in vehicles already on the road.

The upshot is that insurers might have to eliminate the discounts altogether, said Kenneth D. Schloman, an attorney for the Alliance of American Insurers, which represents more than 250 insurance companies.

That ``would penalize those policyholders who choose not to disconnect,″ he told federal regulators.

Dave Hurst, spokesman for State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., the largest auto insurer, said if more people get into crashes without air bags, that also could drive up the cost of claims and premiums.

``Nobody really knows how many people will actually do it and what the long-term implications (are),″ said Hurst.

But for Eric Stork, this isn’t a matter of dollars and cents.

``I care about life and limb a great deal more,″ he said.

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