Crash victim’s family pushes for air-bag probe

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By Nicole Cohen 

It’s been more than six months since an air bag killed Ryerson social work instructor Karol Steinhouse, and her family wants a public examination of the risks surrounding the safety device.

“I’d prefer an inquest,” said Ken Macdonald, Steinhouse’s husband.  “Under some circumstances air bag are very dangerous.”

Steinhouse, 47, died in late March after her Acura Integra’s air bag deployed during a four-car crash at a red light on Mount Pleasant Road, near Davisville Avenue.

A coroner’s investigation concluded that blunt force trauma — a direct result of the air bag — broke six of Steinhouse’s ribs and punctured her aorta, ultimately killing her.

Macdonald wants to know why such a minor crash, one that didn’t even damage the car, triggered the air bag’s ejection.

“She would have been alive today without the air bag,” Macdonald said.  “We bought a car we thought was safer and it turned out to be her demise.  It killer her.”

He hopes an inquest will spark public debate about the safety device’s effectiveness.

The person in charge of calling inquests, Toronto supervising coroner Dr. Bill Lucas, said he is still waiting for investigators to analyze the Integra’s event data recorder — a device that will show whether Ms. Steinhouse was wearing a seat belt, if she was wearing it properly, and whether her car was accelerating or braking at the time of the crash.

Dr. Lucas said he will sit down with Steinhouse’s family after the investigation is complete, but said an inquest may not be necessary because a wave of public discussion already happened through the excessive media coverage after the crash.

“After the accident there was a lot of media attention and public education about air bags,” Dr. Lucas said.  “We responded [about air-bag safety] in a timely fashion and the questions becomes, do we need to revisit that?”

Detective Wally Watts of Toronto police’s traffic services unit said he’s waiting for Transport Canada investigators to finish analyzing the event data recorder, but he doesn’t know how long it will take results.

“The Steinhouse case is just one of many in Canada and it’s a lengthy process,” he said.  “We’re in the pile.”

Alan German, Transport Canada’s chief collision investigator, said the data recorder is just part of the investigation, but wouldn’t comment further about the probe.

Those who were close to Steinhouse are also starting to wonder what’s taking so long.

“I’ll be patient for a few more months and then I’ll start to have less patience,” said Macdonald, who said he is letting his lawyer handle the case.

Since his wife’s untimely death, Macdonald has become a voice for air-bag safety, advocating people’s right to have the device removed if they think it poses a threat.

The Canadian Automobile Association says shorter people tend to have a higher risk of injury from air bags because they often sit very close to the steering wheel.  Steinhouse was just more than 5 feet tall.

Macdonald said car dealers aren’t allowed to remove air bags except under exceptional circumstances.  If customers want to take it out, they have to go through the car manufacturer, which can be a lengthy process and cost up to $800, he said.

Macdonald has established a scholarship fund in his late-wife’s name.

The scholarship will be awarded to Ryerson social work and social service students who are active in social justice issues outside the classroom.

Macdonald has decided on a title for the scholarship, nor has he decided what the dollar value will be, but says it will be a “substantial amount.”

Macdonald was inspired by the many people that wanted to make donations to recognize Steinhouse’s dedication to teaching.  “Karol was not someone who could be easily or ever forgotten.”

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