WASHINGTON -- When Susan Hayes, 29, skidded off the road into a drainage ditch in June, the air bag in her Mazda Miata slammed into her head and broke her neck.
The 5-foot-2-inch Baltimore woman spent six weeks in a coma and eight weeks in intensive care. She says she was wearing a seat belt in the crash.
"Without the air bag, I would have walked away," she said last week. Her 4-year-old son was belted in the front passenger seat -- which did not have an air bag -- and did walk away.
While the risk that air bags pose to children has attracted national attention, that danger has overshadowed the fact that bags also can injure and kill adults, particularly short women.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has warned for some time that women, especially those over 70 who may be frail, are among the adults most at risk of being killed by air bags.
But younger adults also face a serious risk of being injured or killed by explosively powerful air bags, a review of federal safety records indicates.
The analysis shows that of 19 adults whose deaths were blamed on air bags, 12 were under age 57. Fifteen of the adults who died were female drivers who sat close to the steering wheel so they could reach the pedals. All were 5 feet 4 inches tall or shorter.
Some men may be at risk, too. Three male drivers between 5 feet 8 inches and 6 feet tall were killed by bags. One may have died because his overweight frame left him too close to the air bag. A heart attack and a seizure may have caused two others to slump into deploying air bags.
The toll of death and injuries is probably much higher, automakers and safety officials fear.
No one is tracking injuries caused by bags. And deaths of adults from air bags are likely to have been underreported, partly because the NHTSA has focused for more than a year on reducing the deaths of children from air bags.
The NHTSA does not believe the risk to adults is as great as the risk to children. On average, almost one child a month has been killed by air bags in the past two years.
NHTSA records show no adult drivers have been killed since February 1995, and no adult deaths have been reported in 1995 and 1996 model cars.
Because they are required to pass a federal safety test involving an unbelted dummy representing a 164-pound adult male in a 30 mph crash, air bags deploy with explosive force, even in fender benders.
The bags, which come out of the dashboard or steering column at 200 mph, have saved hundreds of lives, but the powerful devices also are blamed for the deaths of at least 47 people in survivable accidents.
To reduce the risk to children, U.S. automakers said last week that they would send warning letters to 15 million owners of vehicles equipped with passenger-side air bags. The message will be simple: Children under 13 should ride buckled in a rear seat.
What is not clear is how automakers and federal safety regulators will make air bags safer for smaller adults.
In a fender bender in Fort Lauderdale in 1993, Donna Greenberg of Florida was killed when her air bag snapped her neck.
"A hangman's break" is how a trauma physician described the injury that killed the 45-year-old woman.
Her brother, Ira Greenberg of Columbia, S.C., said his sister's death should have alerted automakers and safety officials to the deadly danger that lay ahead.
She was 5 feet 2 inches tall and weighed 102 pounds, he said.
Donna Greenberg was killed in October 1993. Eight other adults had already been killed by driver-side air bags. Since her death, 28 children have been killed by passenger air bags.
Greenberg's mother is frustrated that safety officials, bent on saving children, have not sounded the alarm about the danger to short women.
"Of course, it's important that children be saved, but there are big children who are somebody's child -- my child -- who can be killed," said Roselyn Greenberg.
Pub Date: 11/07/96