One of General Motors' chief safety experts says airbags are overrated as life savers. To the chagrin of the automaker, he has taken his views public.
Leonard Evans, principal research scientist at GM's Research and Development Center, suggests that airbags may even increase an occupant's chance of death. And airbags that deploy with less force, which begin to arrive in the 1998 model year, won't be the answer, he contends.
In essays published by the Washington Times on June 8 and the Detroit Free Press on June 16, Evans bluntly recommended that airbags should be optional, not mandatory. He added that depowering the airbags would reduce the number of low-speed fatalities to women and children - but also further reduce airbags' effectiveness.
Evans has written a book on traffic safety and 120 technical papers, so his opinion carries some weight.
But his opinions on airbags do not reflect GM's position. The automaker supports airbags. And while GM acknowledges there are risks, it says most of them disappear when people buckle their safety belts and when children ride in the back seat.
GM requires employees' publications to be reviewed before they are made public, said Bob Lange, engineering director for NAO Vehicle Development.
The policy, in this case, apparently was circumvented, he said.
Evans' supervisor has reminded him about the proper procedures, Lange said.
Lange added that a big company like GM will always have people with different opinions - and that's healthy. But if the company does not speak with one voice, the public will get conflicting messages, he said.
Evans made it clear that he spoke on his own behalf, not as a spokesman for GM. He also said he did not clear his essay in advance with GM.
'I am speaking solely as a citizen,' Evans told Automotive News. 'I was speaking as the husband of a 4-foot-11-inch wife and (the father of) a 4-foot-11-inch daughter.'
Children and small adults have been the most frequent victims among the 62 fatalities caused by deploying airbags.
Evans declined to indicate what kind of response he has received from GM insiders after the publication of his essay.
'It's getting very tricky,' was all he would say.
Evans took a high profile on the issue March 19, when the National Transportation Safety Board invited him to testify on airbag safety. Evans did so - as a 'citizen concerned with traffic safety,' he said.
Later, he summarized his testimony in the newspaper essays.