A Life-Or-Death Choice?

Soon Americans will probably be able to decide whether they want to turn their airbags on or off. As two very different tragedies show, the consequences of that decision couldn't be more grave.

IF WE COULD CHANGE WHAT happened to Becky Tebbetts, an 18-year-old college student, late one night in 1991, where would we start? With a tap on the brakes as she drove south on New Hampshire's Route 113, a winding mountain road 20 miles from her parents' home in Gilford? Or if we could see her car miss the curve, then career across the road and down an embankment, would we change history and put an airbag in the steering wheel, to protect her head as the little Ford Escort impaled a 60-foot oak with a bang that awakened a neighbor a quarter mile away? Then perhaps on the last Friday of this September her mother, Jo-Ann, would have handed her younger daughter a bouquet of roses for her 25th birthday, rather than leaving them, as she has for seven years, at Becky's grave.

And then we would use our magical powers to undo a starkly different event from last Christmas morning, when 6-year-old Andrew Evans of Omaha, Neb., headed off for church in his mother's 1995 Plymouth Voyager, with his grandmother Sue Ellen Burgess at the wheel. It was just the two of them, on a clear morning, with the streets dry and traffic so light that it seemed harmless to let Andrew sit in the front without a seat belt. Rolling cautiously at 20 miles an hour through an intersection, Burgess never saw another car run a red light until the instant before they collided, just hard enough for the passenger-side airbag to fire. The bag, erupting from the dashboard at 200 miles an hour, caught Andrew at just the right angle to break his neck between the second and third cervical vertebrae, leaving him a ventilator-dependent quadriplegic, probably for the rest of his life.

These terrible events can never be undone, but American society does have a mechanism for the retroactive redress of such tragedies. It is the lawsuit. Millions of dollars could ultimately be sought from the respective carmakers in these two accidents, for their alleged negligence in failing to install airbags in one instance, and for allegedly installing an unsafe airbag in another. And those two arguments represent the two painful sides of the airbag dilemma. On the one hand, airbags do save lives-2,505 to date, safety experts say. But airbags also cost lives: at last count, 83 people, mostly small adults and children not wearing seat belts, have been killed by the controlled, 200-mile-per-hour explosion of sodium azide that unleashes an airbag.

The deaths have prompted a fierce national debate, complete with congressional hearings and presidential pronouncements. And since public policy these days often seems to be shaped by horrific anecdote, that debate is expected to culminate any day now in a decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to allow drivers to disconnect their airbags with the flip of a switch. That would force millions of Americans to face a stark question each time they get behind the wheel: do they leave the airbag on, and risk catastrophic injury like Andrew Evans's, or turn it off, and risk dying like Becky Tebbetts?

Brown-haired, hazel-eyed Becky was a voracious reader who graduated from high school a year early thanks to good grades and a heavy courseload. At 18 she had finished three semesters at the University of New Hampshire and was hoping to study drama and move to New York City someday. More than six years after Becky's death, her parents are still too upset to talk to a reporter about it; their surviving daughter, Christine, describes them as "emotional cripples." When Becky died, Christine was serving in the army in Saudi Arabia; afterward she earned a law degree and joined attorney Ted McKean's firm, which now represents the family in its suit against Ford. After the accident Christine drove over and over down the stretch of road where her sister died, hoping "the sky would suddenly open up and explain why it happened." Now the S-curve in the quiet country lane that meanders around Squam Lake is marred with painted green and yellow numbers, letters and arrows left by accident-reconstruction experts trying to answer the same question. Christine has no doubts about who is to blame. "It makes my parents angry to learn that my sister could have walked away from this accident," she says. "What they want is for Ford to be held accountable for the marketing decisions it made." The trial begins Nov. 3.

Was Ford responsible for Becky Tebbetts's death? Legally, the family can advance that argument without having to show that the car malfunctioned, or that anyone is to blame for the accident but Becky herself. McKean's own experts concede that she was driving 45 miles an hour-10 miles over the posted limit when she entered the curve, heading home from an evening of stargazing on nearby Rattlesnake Mountain with a friend, Steven Page. The first question the trial will have to resolve is whether an airbag would have saved her life. McKean's experts will testify that her car had slowed to between 24 and 31 miles an hour by the time it hit the tree, right in the range where airbags save lives. "An airbag would have helped substantially," says Eleanor Mardin, an ambulance driver at the scene.

But Ford will present testimony--primarily from experts who have reviewed photographs-that the car entered the curve at 50 to 55 miles an hour and was still traveling at 40 when it hit the tree. At 40 miles an hour, says Ford attorney Malcolm Wheeler, an airbag is 85 percent less effective than at $0. He will argue, moreover, that just before the impact, Tebbetts (who was wearing a seat belt) had been jostled toward the center of the car, where an airbag mounted in the steering wheel wouldn't have helped her anyway. It was her head snapping forward in the crash, says Wheeler, that tore open an artery and caused Tebbetts's heart to stop as rescue workers tried to pull her out of the wreckage. "Had it not[ been for this freak injury," he says, "she would have walked away from this 40-mile-per-hour accident, which is almost beyond comprehension. . .The car was fabulous in that respect."

Even if the jurors agree that an airbag would have saved Tebbetts, McKean--who comes from a family of Ford dealers-must convince them that Ford was to blame for the fact that her car didn't have one. Only 7 percent of the 14.9 million vehicles sold in 1989 had airbags. The 1998 models just coming out now are the first in which they're required on both sides in every car. In some states and in some federal districts, automakers routinely get suits similar to Tebbetts's dismissed on the ground that federal safety regulations pre-empt any other implied responsibility automakers have to consumers. The first judge to hear the Tebbetts case agreed, but McKean got the suit reinstated by the state supreme court in 1995, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear Ford's appeal.

Bolstering Ford's case: Tebbetts's father, Dick, who bought the Escort in 1989, could have gotten an airbag. The Escort was on sale for $8,375 that day, but for $2,500 more he could have bought an airbag-equipped Tempo instead. To Wheeler, that is a measure of how "outrageous" the Tebbetts suit is. As a practical matter, Ford contends, it made sense to phase in airbags by installing them first in bigger, lower-volume models; in fairness, someone who chooses to save money on a less-safe ear has implicitly agreed to accept certain risks. But to McKean and to Christine Tebbetts, fairness is precisely the issue. "This case is about what Ford decided working families ought to have for safety in their car," she says. (Tebbetts is an electrician; his wife, JoAnn, a seamstress.) "We're going to play the rich person/poor person card," says McKean. "The bank president had protection, but not the kid who could only afford to buy a small car." Similar arguments have swayed some juries. Of the four previous no-airbag cases that have gone to trial, juries ruled in favor of the carmaker twice and awarded multimillion-dollar judgments in the other two.

ANDREW EVANS, THE BOY IN the wheelchair, has reached his own conclusion about what should be done to those responsible for his airbag-induced injury. "Kick 'em in the butt," he told NEWSWEEK. It would be a funny line--if Andrew didn't have to say it through a valve in his throat, and if he hadn't already experienced so much automotive tragedy in his young life. His father, Robert, was killed in an accident before Andrew was even born: he lost control of his Chevrolet Chevette on 1-29, drove down an embankment into a stand of trees and died almost instantly of a broken neck. Afterward Andrew's mother, Jean, didn't scrimp on safety. In 1995 she traded in her Dodge Caravan, with a driver's-side airbag, for a new Plymouth Voyager with dual airbags, because she felt guilty about not protecting her three children. "When I bought that van, the deciding factor was airbags," she says.

Before the accident, Andrew was a bit of a ham. He'd taken to calling himself Elvis, and his mother says he used to dance in swivel-hipped imitation of his idol. After the presents were opened last Christmas morning, Andrew volunteered to ride to church with his grandmother Burgess. He was so excited that he put his boots on the wrong feet. His mother stayed behind to clean up the wrappings. Fifteen minutes after they'd left, she heard the phone ring. A bystander at the accident scene called on a cell phone.

The Evanses' attorney, Roger Holthaus, plans to file suit against Chrysler by the end of the month. Chrysler wouldn't comment on its defense plans, though its executives did point out that Andrew wasn't wearing his seat belt, in violation of the law. There's little doubt that the airbag, not the collision, broke Andrew's neck: although damaged, the big, heavy Voyager could still be driven after the crash. Burgess remembers her legs hitting the dashboard, the pain in her teeth from the airbag's erupting into her face. "When I opened my eyes," she says, "the car was filled with smoke [from the airbag propellant]. I reached for Andrew. I couldn't find him." Rescuers found him, unconscious, on the floor of the car between the two seats. Jean got to the scene just as a helicopter was landing to take Andrew to St. Joseph's Hospital. His neck was braced, she recalls, but there was only a tiny trickle of blood on his forehead: "It looked like he was asleep."

Andrew's trunk and limbs emerged from the accident even more unscathed than the Voyager. As his mother puts it: "He didn't have a broken bone in his body, except for the one that really counted." That break came high enough on Andrew's neck to cause complete respiratory paralysis. Today Andrew is permanently tethered to a ventilator; his blood pressure sometimes skyrockets to dangerous levels, and he can't be outside for long on hot or cold days because his body has lost its ability to regulate its own temperature. He's exceedingly proud of three things. Some doctors said he'd never talk, and he does. Some said he'd never eat real food, and he does. And some said he'd never leave his bed. In August, aboard his high-tech, $18,000 puff-and sip-controlled wheelchair, Andrew entered first grade as a regular member of Debbie Ryekman's class at Sandoz Elementary School in Millard, an Omaha suburb. "Maybe I'll even get in love," he says.

Forty-nine days after the accident, a form letter from Chrysler arrived at the vans home. It contained two self-sticking labels, for attachment to sun visors, with instructions about airbags, including the wisdom of wearing seat belts. Burgess, who says she is ordinarily scrupulous about seat-belt use, has no explanation for why she didn't insist on it this time. Legally, it may not make much difference: last week a jury in South Carolina found Chrysler liable for $262.5 million in a non-airbag-related accident even though the victim, who was ejected from the ear, was unbelted. And Nebraska law provides that failure to wear a seat belt should reduce an award of damages for negligence by no more than 5 percent.

But for understanding what happened, the issue of the unused seat belt is crucial. There is no great mystery about the dangers of airbags: they are lethal missiles within the first hundredths of a second after they deploy. The great majority of fatal injuries directly caused by airbags involved unbelted children or short adults, who are most likely to take the blow on the head-especially if they happen to be leaning forward, or are thrown forward when the driver brakes before impact. Robert C. Sanders, a Baltimore lawyer, was driving his Dodge minivan in 1995 with his 7-year-old daughter, Alison, belted beside him when he became distracted by the car radio. Alison took off her shoulder harness to help-just as he hit another car at less than 10 miles an hour. Nobody was hurt except Alison, who was caught by the airbag and died of massive brain injuries.

From the point of view of the carmakers, this particular flaw is no accident. It is the logical result of the way the government regulations are written, requiring "automatic passive restraints" capable of protecting adults in a head-on crash of up to $0 miles an hour-in other words, a system that will work even if the driver is too dumb, lazy or stubborn to buckle his seat belt. To protect an unbelted, 165-pound male requires a powerful airbag.

Better airbags may finally be on the way. In fact, some of them are already in new cars; designated "Second Generation" airbags by Ford, they are essentially just lower-powered variations on the standard version, intended to be less dangerous to children. Carmakers, naturally, have their fingers crossed that they won't be sued too often by people claiming the new airbags failed to protect them in crashes. Down the road are so-called smart airbags that will be able to deploy at varying speeds, depending on the weight and position of the driver or passenger and the speed of the crash. Meanwhile, though, NHTSA is pondering the details of its plan to make it easier to disconnect or turn off airbags; a decision should come within the next month. This proposal is almost unique in the history of government regulation in that it has won the united opposition of auto manufacturers and dealers, public-interest groups, insurance companies and medical societies. Van Wilbur, safety director for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, says surveys show that of the 67 million people who now own airbag-equipped vehicles, 10 million will deactivate their airbags if they have the option. "Free choice here is going to kill a lot of extra people," he warns. "People are reacting in irrational fear," agrees Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Automotive Safety.

But airbags are an emotional issue for parents, precisely because they're intended to save lives. The people hurt by them are identifiable individuals (and, tragically, often children); the 2,000-plus who have been saved by them are a statistical projection. And any technological solution is at best a compromise. Disconnect switches might have saved Alison Sanders and Andrew Evans, but the auto industry's real fear is that people will turn off their airbags and then die in a crash. (They're also afraid of the ensuing lawsuits.) Which is why these victims' fates, and that of Becky Tebbetts, are worth pondering. They represent the human cost of the one technological law that never gets repealed: the law of unintended consequences.

                 Children      Adult drivers       Adult          
                                                 passengers

Belted              2

Unbelted or        31
improperly belted

In rear-facing     12
safety seat

Belted                            10

Unbelted or                       22
improperly belted

Unknown if belted                  3

Belted                                                1

Unbelted                                              2

SOURCE: NHTSA