By Jonathan Bjerg Meiller
Collision investigators from Ryerson are helping police determine whether an air bag caused the death of a Ryerson social work professor.
Karol Steinhouse, 47 died after suffering six broken ribs and a punctured aorta in a four-car fender-bender last Wednesday.
The air bag in her Acura Integra activated when her car was struck from behind while stopped at a red light on Mount Pleasant Road near Davisville Avenue.
Investigators from Ryerson’s Vehicle Safety Research Centre joined Transport Canada, Honda (which makes Acuras) and Toronto police Monday to see whether the car’s air bag played a role in Steinhouse’s death.
Walter Scattolon, one of Ryerson’s collision investigators involved in the probe, said air bags can injure drivers who sit very close to the steering wheel.
“Your chances of getting injured by an air bag depend on how far are you from it,” Scattolon said.
He said injuries also vary depending on when the driver actually connects with the air bag.
“It happens very quickly but if you low it down, there are different stages when you could hit the air bag,” he said.
Scattolon said drivers who sit very close to the steering wheel risk hitting the air bag in the first or second stage of development—while it is still inflating—increasing the risk of injury.
Claudia Palucci, Canadian Automobile Association’s Central Ontario spokesperson, said a driver’s chest, should be at least 25 centimeters from the steering wheel to avoid serious injury.
Shorter people tend to have a higher risk of injury from air bags, she said, because they often sit very close to the steering wheel.
Steinhouse was 4 foot 10.
In most injuries involving air bags, a driver is not properly restrained or is too close to the air bag when it deploys, Palucci said.
Ryerson’s Vehicle Safety Research Centre has been housed at the university for more than 12 years and is financed by Transport Canada. Investigators study the effectiveness of car-safety devices by collecting and analyzing information from traffic accidents. The researchers conduct 40 investigations a year involving accidents in which air bags are deployed Transport Canada can recreate the accidents by using the collected information.
Air bags are required in all new vehicles by Transport Canada and if the car’s driver meets at least one of four criteria—one of which is sitting within 25 centimetres of the steering wheel. CAA supports the government’s decision to allow deactivations for some individuals but maintains “in most cases, vehicle occupants are safer with an active air bag.”
Alan German, the chief of Transport Canada’ investigation division, said research conducted at Ryerson and at similar centres in other provinces helped convince air bag manufacturers the first air bags installed in cars were too powerful and contributed to injuries in low-speed accidents.
In the past two years a new generation of de-powered air bags has emerged. Palucci said they are not as powerful as the original air cushions because they deploy at a lower speed of inflation, but they are just as effective.
Steinhouse’s black, two-door, 2000 Acura Integra, which she bought in September from Downtown Acura on Front Street, was equipped with a new de-powered airbag.
German also said manufacturers have introduced a more “advanced air bag system” that can deploy at different power levels according to whether a driver is wearing a seatbealt and how fast the car is moving.
Michael Brugel, who owns Downtown Acura, said customers are told how to use the cars’ safety features and given a detailed manual that says air bags are meant to be used in conjunction with a seatbelt.
“The seatbelt is the primary restraint in cars. The air bag is supplemental,” he said. “The two working together are very effective.”
Police and experts from Honda are also examining the car’s event data recorder—a device that will tell police whether Steinhouse was wearing a seatbelt and whether her car was accelerating or breaking at the time of the accident.
German said air bags have caused at least six deaths in Canada but have saved more than 300.