WASHINGTON -- Not all motorists are deactivating airbags when children are riding in the front seat even though they are aware of the technology to turn them off and know how to use it, regulators said Wednesday.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said in a survey of pickup drivers that switches to activate and deactivate airbags were often misused.
"Airbags can be real lifesavers if used properly but pose grave risk to small children," said the agency's administrator, Jeffrey Runge.
Motor vehicle crashes are the leading cause of death or injury for children in the United States. Nearly 1,600 people 14 and younger were killed and more than 220 were hurt in 2001. Nearly half of the victims 4 and younger were unrestrained.
Safety figures show nearly 200 people died from airbag-related injuries between 1996 and 2000, including 116 children. Again, the victims were either not wearing seat belts or were improperly restrained.
But those figures represented a sharp decline over previous statistics, which experts credit largely to improved restraint use and better law enforcement.
Nevertheless, trucks can pose a unique problem because many do not have back seats, making proper use of the airbag switch more important.
More than 12 million pickups and a smaller number of passenger cars and cargo vans without rear seats are equipped with airbag on-off switches. The switch should be off for children and on for adults.
NHTSA interviewed 3,100 pickup drivers who were in their vehicles in 2000 in California, Georgia, Michigan, and Texas. In at least 600 cases, the front-seat passenger was an infant or child under 12.
The survey found 86 percent of motorists turned off the switch when infants and young children riding in rear-facing safety seats were placed in the front. Airbag systems were left on nearly half the time for older child passengers.
The majority knew they had a switch and how it worked. While they generally understood the potential danger posed to infants and toddlers, some motorists were less sure about risks posed to those older than 3.