Woman can't get airbag switch installed

February 11, 1998|By LISA GRAYBEAL

by Joe Crocetta / staff photographer

click for enlargement

Worried that she could be killed if the air bag on the steering wheel of her 1994 Cadillac DeVille deploys, Beverly Corbin got permission from the U.S. Department of Transportation to have a switch installed that would enable her to deactivate the safety device.

But Corbin's car dealership, like some others in the area, refuse to install the switch because they're afraid of potential liability even with authorization at the federal level.

"I think everybody has equal questions about liability. If a customer's estate sues us, they'll sue everybody who touched the thing," said Rick Hamilton, president of Hamilton Pontiac-Cadillac Inc. on Frederick Street.


Corbin, of Hagerstown, said car dealerships should be worried about liability for not installing the deactivation switch if the air bag deploys and she's killed.

"I think the dealerships have an obligation," Corbin said.

The switch, which can be installed on the driver's side, the passenger's side, or both sides of the car, allows a person to turn on or off an air bag by inserting a key. When the air bag is turned off, a light comes on.

"The vast majority of people don't need an on-off switch. Almost everyone over age 12 is much safer with air bags than without them," according to a passage in a booklet about the switch put out by the U.S. Department of Transportation's National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

But there are exceptions for people like Corbin who, at 4 feet 11 inches tall, has to adjust her seat forward to see the road and reach the foot pedals. That puts her about four inches from the steering wheel.

Corbin said she's worried that if the air bag were to deploy in an accident, the force with which it would hit her body would kill her.

"Anything that hits me in the chest at 200 mph will kill me or it'll rip my head off," she said.

Drivers who can't keep 10 inches between the center of the steering wheel and the center of their breastbones are eligible to have the deactivation switch installed, according to the booklet.

Others eligible include people who must place infants riding in rear-facing car seats in the front passenger seat; people who must place children ages 1 to 12 in the front passenger seat; and people whose doctors say that, due to their medical conditions, the air bag poses a special risk that outweighs the risk of hitting their head, neck or chest in a crash if the air bag is turned off.

"Everybody is trying to figure out the liability of it," said Jim Furr, operations manager at Hagerstown Honda.

The switches won't be available for Hondas until late summer or early next winter, but even then it's unclear whether the dealerships will take on the responsibility of installing them, Furr said.

The liability issue is the reason Hoffman Chevrolet on South Edgewood Drive isn't installing the switches, said Eric McKendrick, service adviser.

Some Chevrolet dealers are installing the switch on a "dealer voluntary basis," he said.

Frank Kennedy Ford in Hagerstown isn't putting the switches in vehicles, said Denny Prozinski, general sales manager.

It's an issue the manufacturers have to deal with because permission by the U.S. Department of Transportation "doesn't relieve anyone from anything," he said.

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