How To Make The Airbag Decision

IT'S THE MECHANICAL equivalent of yanking a loose tooth. Turn some screws, unhook some wires and voilA--your airbag is disconnected. ""It's fairly simple,'' says Warren Bartholomew, a Phoenix software salesman who recently bought instructions to disconnect the passenger airbag in his Pontiac Grand Prix. The reason: he was tired of his 8-month-old granddaughter's crying in the back seat. Bartholomew is not alone: although it can be dangerous to disconnect an airbag yourself, the company that sold him the $129 do-it-yourself kit, Air Bag Systems of Dallas, gets 20 inquiries a day. Says owner Chris McNutt: ""People are just scared to death of these things.''

The flood of business could end soon. Any day now, the government will announce plans to make it easier for drivers to disconnect their airbags. The new rule will create a nation of airbag Hamlets, as folks weigh the devices' risks and rewards. The carmakers hope drivers keep their airbags on, but they're rushing to meet the impending rules: at General Motors, on-off switches will arrive at dealerships within weeks of the announcement, and for $50 to $200 dealers will install the switch on any GM car or truck sold since 1988. If you order it, expect to sign a stack of legal papers acknowledging you know the risks of turning off an airbag. To make sure too many folks don't rashly turn their bags off, expect a high-volume public-service campaign. Says Janet Dewey of the Airbag Safety Campaign: ""We really have to imprint the message into people's psyches, to change their behaviors.''

The message is this: despite the worries over airbags, nearly everyone is better off with them than without them. Safety advocates agree that they're proven lifesavers in frontal crashes--the most deadly kind. And despite what you've read, says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, nearly all airbag injuries can be prevented by following a few simple steps. Make sure everyone in the car wears his seat belt. Keep kids under 13 in the back seat. Adjust the front seats far back from the steering wheel and dashboard. For drivers, the key to airbag safety is making sure your breastbone is at least 10 inches from the center of the steering wheel. ""Even for very short people--4-foot-10, 4-foot-11--we feel they can sit far enough back,'' says Chrysler safety director Susan Cischke. If you can't get comfortable in that position, consider pedal extenders or sitting on a pillow for a better view of the road.

On the passenger side, the most important safety tip is to keep your head far back from the dashboard. Don't bend over or lean forward to tie your shoe, scratch your ankle or play with the radio. Moves like that--which put a passenger's head into the so-called zone of deployment, where an airbag's power is greatest--have been lethal. Just last month an 11-year-old Minnesota boy was killed when an airbag went off as he bent over to pick up a tissue. ""The power is greatest in the first two or three inches,'' warns Dr. Ricardo Martinez, the government's top auto-safety official. ""We haven't seen fatalities for children or drivers who are back at the time of deployment.''

There are, of course, no guarantees about safety whenever you step into an automobile--car crashes now kill more young adults than AIDS does. Life is a game of odds, and for most of us the odds are better if we're wearing seat belts and taking these precautions in an airbag-equipped vehicle.