My parents will KILL me," the little girl in the car pool sobbed.
Normally, this 4-year-old was the world's most even-tempered child. What had thrown her? She was sitting in a borrowed car whose retro-fitted seat belts didn't look like what her parents had taught her was safe.
We eventually talked the girl into the seat belt - which was safe - and didn't think much about the incident until the recent controversy over the safety of automobile air bags brewed up. If more adults were as responsible now as that girl's parents had taught her to be, the air bag controversy would have fizzled long before it started.
The stories of people, especially small children, being killed by the sudden inflation of passenger-side air bags would break anyone's heart. They've already given conservatives an excuse to attack the federal government for requiring the air bags in the first place, and liberals an excuse to attack the auto companies for carelessness, arrogance and male bias, because the passenger bags were designed to protect an average-sized man, not a woman or a child.
But if you read the stories about air bag deaths and injuries closely, you start to notice that many of the victims were sitting in the wrong places, or without the kind of protection that experts have been telling drivers to use for over 20 years. Better designed air bags wouldn't help that.
"Virtually all those killed," observes the London magazine Economist, "were not wearing seat belts. Only one of the children killed, in particular, was under proper constraint: others were traveling in rear-facing infant carriers, which normally carry large warning tags telling parents they should be used only in the back seat."
The Economist also notes that while nearly all British, Canadian and German drivers and passengers use seat belts, only about 60 percent of Americans do, "despite decades of propaganda and the passage of mandatory seat-belt laws in 49 of the 50 states." At least more of us use seat belts than vote.
Deborah Baer, president of the Maryland Child Passenger Safety Association and a volunteer with Kids in Safety Seats, writes of air-bag safety in a recent community newsletter: "We have always told parents that children do not belong in the front seat; yet they have not listened to us. Let's try it again: Children under five feet tall weighing less than 100 pounds must not ride in the front seat." Baer told us she bought a large American car partly for its dual air bags; we bought a midsized American station lTC wagon for the same reason 5 years ago, and in the owners' manual was a warning not to put small children in the front.
(Chrysler Corp. reinforced the point Thursday, announcing a $3 million education campaign in elementary schools, preschools and day care centers across the country to convince children that "the back seat is where it's at.")
When our older child was a newborn, our pediatrician laid down the rule for us: The youngest child goes in the middle rear seat. Almost a decade later, we modify that rule only for long trips with both children, when we judge it safer to move them to the sides and keep the middle seat as a buffer zone between them. Any parent who's taken long drives with kids will know why.
Our doctor, himself the father of three, also explained something which he repeats every year: Safety devices work only when used - and used correctly. So our younger child, a wiry 5-year-old who hasn't yet graduated from safety seats to boosters, goes into her seat, and we go nowhere until we hear all three clicks from her belt buckles and see that everything is in order. When the rear seat won't hold a car pool, the child closest to adult size goes in the front, with instructions to sit properly.
As Oscar Hammerstein wrote, "You've got to be carefully taught." Do we enjoy teaching this to our kids? NO! Do the kids enjoy this drill? NO! This is where being a parent means being "uncool" and "mean." As Baer says, "This is not a war that we can afford to lose."
The numbers we should be looking at, cited by Baer, are these: 1,100 across the nation saved by those air bags vs. nearly 50 killed in three years. While any death caused by an airbag is too many, we should also be concerned by the death of common sense.
Martha B. Landaw is a Baltimore homemaker and writer. Jeffrey M. Landaw is a makeup editor at The Sun.
Pub Date: 12/15/96