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Air bag switch a consideration for some, ruled out by others

November 19, 1997

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Mandy Katz had packed up her car with kids heading to school, when a neighbor asked her to squeeze in just one more.

The only space left was the front passenger seat.

``I asked my neighbor, and she said, ’It’s OK. You’re not going to get into an accident in this short distance,‴ recalled Katz, a Washington resident. ``That was a rare situation, but it made me uncomfortable.″

Parents such as Katz have a new option to consider when stuck in tough spots with kids in cars: an on-off switch for the air bags.

A regulation approved Tuesday will allow motorists at risk of injury from air bags _ including short adults and those who drive car pools and must have a child in the front seat _ to fill out a federal form and have the on-off switch installed starting Jan. 19.

Some families say they’ll pass on the paperwork and keep their kids out of the front seat altogether _ which is exactly what federal safety experts recommend.

``I wouldn’t even apply for it,″ said Damaris King, picking up her kids at their day care center near Chevy Chase, Md. ``I will not put a child, or even a small adult, in the front seat.″

``This is a practical solution that allows you to turn off the air bag for someone at risk and turn it back on to preserve the lifesaving benefits for everyone else,″ Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater told a news conference.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration will start accepting the requests for the switches Dec. 18 and allow dealers and repair shops to start installing the mechanisms_ which will likely cost $150 to $200 _ by Jan. 19.

The move comes in response to the deaths of 87 children and adults from air bags in low-speed crashes. The safety devices, now mandatory in new cars, are also credited with saving 2,600 lives.

Forty percent of children ride unbuckled.

``Only someone who is very close to, or on top of, an air bag as it first begins to inflate is at risk of serious inflation injury,″ said Brian O’Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Consumers will have to weigh the facts: The government estimates that switches could save the lives of 177 children and 45 adults in the next four years. But if only 1 percent of the drivers who are not at risk use switches, there would be 42 additional deaths.

``We don’t view this as a green light to shut off your air bag. We hope few will,″ said Judith Stone, president of Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety.

Still, the option appeals to some who say they do generally seat their kids in back but would like an extra safety precaution. Susan Barocas, buckling her 1-year-old into his car seat in the back on the passenger side, still thinks she would exercise the option to switch off the air bag.

``I think the option is important,″ said Barocas, who lives in Washington. ``There’s no safety mechanism that’s foolproof.″

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