How can I protect myself from my own airbag when I'm only 5 feet tall and must sit close to the steering wheel?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Apr 01, 1997

Dear Tom and Ray:

OK, boys, what I have here is not a trivial "lava lamp" type question, but
a serious "life or death" kind of problem. I'm a little surprised you
haven't addressed this one yet. Nearly a year ago, my stalled VW Cabriolet
got creamed from behind by an Oldsmobile going 50 mph. I miraculously
survived with only a nasty bump on my head.

However, the reality of mortality fell down upon me like a dump-truck load
of scrap metal. When I bought a replacement vehicle, I wanted something
with a few more safety features and a lot more rear end between me and the
idiot following me. I bought a Mazda MX-6. The Mazda has an airbag, which
brings me to my question. I am a 5-foot-tall woman, and am now hearing that
the airbag -- which is supposed to help me survive an accident -- may
actually hurt me or kill me!

What am I supposed to do about this? I have to sit close to the steering
wheel (and the airbag) so I can reach the pedals. I understand that it will
be possible to disconnect the airbag, but that has to be a better solution,
doesn't there? Any ideas? -- Marceline

TOM: Gee, Marceline, there are two good reasons why we haven't addressed
this issue yet. One is that we don't have a really good solution to the
problem. The other reason is that our answer involves scathing criticism of
a U.S. Government agency, and we wanted to wait as long as possible before
basically "begging" the IRS to audit us. But here goes.

RAY: In our opinions, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration
(NHTSA) made a big mistake when it made airbag regulations. It required the
airbag to protect "unbelted" drivers as well as "belted" drivers.

TOM: In an accident, the seat belt actually does most of the work of
keeping you in place. It keeps you from being thrown out of the car, and up
to a certain point, it keeps you from embedding your head in the steering
wheel (I'm sure you've seen those people from the pre-airbag days with
those backwards "Ford" logos permanently branded onto their foreheads).

RAY: The airbag is really there to provide "additional" or "supplemental"
protection; to protect your head and your chest in a severe accident. And
that requires a certain amount of airbag force.

TOM: But if you also have to keep a 160-pound UNBELTED schnook from
bouncing off the dashboard, you're going to need a heck of a lot more force
in that airbag. So much so that it can harm kids and small adults.

RAY: That means that some responsible people who are wearing their seat
belts are in unnecessary danger because the federal government decided to
use over-powered airbags to protect the morons who refuse to buckle up.

TOM: Now they're considering allowing less-powerful airbags until so-called
"smart bag" technology is ready. And that's what they should have done in
the first place. And in my humble opinion, NHTSA is fully and solely
responsible for any deaths and injuries caused by the deployment of these
overpowered airbags. Is this where I should include my Social Security
number to facilitate the audit process?

RAY: I would. Actually, while it was a dumb decision to require the
protection of unbelted drivers, we should point out that airbags, overall,
are very good things. Even in their less-than-perfect current form, they
save many more lives than they take, and we DO NOT recommend disconnecting

TOM: But what do you do? Well, first of all, if you have kids, they should
ride in the back. That's true whether you have airbags or not, since the
back seat is inherently a safer place than the front seat.

RAY: If you're a very short adult, we don't personally recommend that you
disconnect your airbag. While it's possible that you may be injured by the
force of the airbag explosion, it's much more likely that it will save your
life. And what would you rather have? A broken nose or a tombstone that
says "The airbag didn't get him ... but the bridge abutment did?"

TOM: What you can do is get yourself some pedal extenders. These devices
extend the gas and brake pedals and allow you to sit further back, which
increases your safety. To find someone in your area who sells pedal
extenders, you can call the National Mobility Equipment Dealers Association
at 800-833-0427. That's a trade organization that will refer you to a local

RAY: And that's probably the best short-term solution for really short
adults. Later on, when less-powerful airbags and "smart bags" become
available, you may be able to get one retrofitted into your car. We
certainly think retrofits should be made available.

TOM: Of course, in my opinion, the federal government should be forced to
recall every car with a NHTSA-approved airbag and pay to replace every
single one of them. After all, if an automobile company made this mistake,
that's exactly what they'd be expected to do.

RAY: There's a call for you on Line 2, Tommy ... . Internal Revenue
something or other about an appointment tomorrow morning at 9.

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