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Most consumers who want to disconnect air bags told to wait

December 13, 1996

WASHINGTON (AP) _ DeeAnn DePaul of Tacoma, Wash., wrote the government last month asking for permission to have a mechanic disconnect her driver-side air bag.

She’s 5-foot-4 and unable to sit very far from the steering wheel, where deploying air bags open at speeds up to 200 mph _ fast enough to kill children and small adults. She isn’t happy she was told to wait.

``I’d like to have a choice. That’s the bottom line,″ DePaul said Friday. ``I’m willing to sign whatever (legal waiver) they want me to sign.″

In the last few months, nearly 800 consumers have written officials at the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency asking for a waiver so a mechanic can disconnect their air bags. The agency has granted 80 waivers, all to people who cited medical problems, officials said.

But the agency has turned away hundreds of waiver requests, telling people to wait until next year when the agency writes a new regulation allowing them to make their own decision. The new rule will provide clear legal authority for deals to disconnect air bags and a safe process for doing it.

``One of the purposes of the proposal (for the new regulation) is to eliminate the need for people to petition their government for this permission,″ said Phil Recht, NHTSA’s deputy administrator.

Air bags have been blamed for the deaths of 32 children and infants and 20 adults. The agency has said repeatedly that younger children should ride in the back seat, away from front-seat air bags.

But air bags have saved more than 1,600 lives, and agency officials believe once people are informed about the benefits of air bags, very few will choose to disconnect the devices.

``We’ve advised our members that they should discourage their customers from disconnecting air bags,″ said Steve McDonald, a spokesman for the Automotive Service Association which represents 55,000 independent service garages.

The NHTSA proposal, modeled after similar programs used successfully by BMW and Volvo in Europe, will include literature for consumers, a consent form to sign and labels inside the car warning passengers an air bag has been disconnected.

The safety agency received an average of 200 calls and 40 to 50 letters a day about air bags. Recht said many people were frightened or nervous about the air bags but when they talked to agency personnel and learned more details they became comfortable with them again.

``Air bags are saving lives,″ said Recht. ``If the rules of air bag safety are followed, the risks can be eliminated in most cases.″

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