Most shorter drivers can eliminate risk without deactivation
Minor seating adjustments help shorter drivers sit farther away from airbags
Among drivers who use safety belts, the possibility of a serious airbag inflation injury is cause for concern if there's less than 10 inches between the belted driver and the steering wheel. Most drivers, even short ones, normally sit with at least this much distance to the wheel. This is the finding of new Insurance Institute for Highway Safety research that measured the distance between the bottom of the breastbone and the steering wheel hub for 587 volunteers seated in their usual driving positions in their own vehicles.
Standardizing volunteers' heights and ages to the distribution of the adult population, researchers estimate that about 5 percent of women sit less than 10 inches from the steering wheel. Even among short women (5 foot-1/2 inch or shorter), two out of three still sit at least 10 inches away.
"Most drivers need only buckle up to avoid the risk of a serious airbag injury. Only a small proportion of belted drivers are potentially at risk," says Susan A. Ferguson, the Institute's research vice president who directed the study.
The findings vary with car size. About 40 percent of short women in large and midsize cars sat closer than 10 inches to the steering wheel, compared with 27 percent in small cars. "This may be because the steering wheel and accelerator pedal are about 2 inches farther apart in large cars than in small ones," Ferguson notes. "When the pedal is located well under the instrument panel, a driver has to sit closer to reach the accelerator."
A related Institute study involved 13 drivers, all 4 foot-8 inches to 5 foot-2 inches. Each was asked to sit in a comfortable driving position in 12 vehicles of varying sizes. Most chose positions at least 10 inches back from the steering wheel, but 3 of the 13 failed to do so in one or two vehicles even after being encouraged to move as far back as possible.
All drivers who sat too close had at least 9 inches to the wheel so, in most cases, "only minor adjustments were needed to eliminate the risk of a serious airbag injury," Ferguson explains. She suggests not only pushing the seat back, if possible, but also tilting the steering wheel down and raising the seat up to achieve 10 inches and still drive comfortably. Some cars have telescoping steering wheels that can help with this.
For a copy of "Survey of Driver Seating Positions in Relation to the Steering Wheel" by D. De Leonardis et. al., write: Publications, 1005 N. Glebe Rd., Suite 800, Arlington, VA 22201.