VI. Focus Group Testing of Public Education Materials (June 1997)

To aid the agency in assessing the effectiveness of the materials it was developing to increase the public's understanding of air bags risks, and ways of reducing or eliminating those risks, NHTSA conducted nine focus groups in three cities to test consumer reaction to those materials. As noted above in the summary of public comments, a number of commenters urged that the agency take the time to enlist the help of focus groups.

Two focus groups were conducted in each of the following cities: Chicago, Illinois, on June 16, 1997, and Greenbelt, Maryland, and Sarasota, Florida, on June 18. Three more focus groups were conducted in Greenbelt on June 24 to look at educational materials concerning air bags. Since public concern about air bag safety has tended to be concentrated in three categories of vehicle owners, i.e., parents of young children, short-statured adults, and older adults, the focus group participants were evenly drawn from those categories. There were three parent focus groups, three short-statured adult focus groups, and three older adult focus groups. Each group had about 10 participants.

The knowledge and views of the various groups were fairly similar. While they had heard about some aspects of the air bag safety story, they did not know significant parts of it. They said that while they had heard or seen media reports about risks that air bags can pose for children, they had received little information about the reasons for those risks, the life-saving benefits of air bags and the methods of reducing risk for people of different ages. Early in each focus group session, and before examining any agency materials, some participants made remarks critical of the media for using what they called scare tactics and for focusing almost exclusively on the negative, eye-catching aspects of the air bag story. They said that media attention to air bag dangers for young children had created an atmosphere of fear and mistrust of air bags. They stated that many of their perceptions had been shaped by those media reports. They had many detailed questions about air bags, including air bag designs, deployment speed and force, severity and types of crashes in which they deployed, life-saving benefits, risk factors, types of injuries, and correct seating adjustments. They emphasized that public information and education would reduce misconceptions about air bags and the associated fear.

Among the very important safety messages that had not yet reached many of the focus group participants was that the recommendation for children to sit in the back seat applies to all children aged 12 and under, not just infants. In an attempt to get this message to vehicle owners last fall, the agency issued a final rule requiring labels in new vehicles expressly warning purchasers about air bag dangers for children aged 12 and under and recommending that children sit in the rear.(19) Further, the vehicle manufacturers' distributed copies of these labels to virtually all owners of existing vehicles with passenger air bags. Many participants were also unaware that proximity to the driver air bag at the time of deployment is the primary source of the risk to drivers of serious air bag-related injuries. They were pleased to be provided with a specific recommendation (10 inches) about the distance that drivers should sit from their air bags. Many participants said that they would attempt to change their driving position.

To determine how much air bag information the public really wants, the three June 24 focus groups were asked to compare a short brochure (essentially a 3-fold accordion brochure) and a long brochure (i.e., an earlier draft of the information brochure in Appendix A of the rule) concerning air bags and on-off switches. Each of the three groups unanimously endorsed the long brochure. These groups, consisting of an older adult group, a short-statured adult group and a parents group, stated that they wanted a lot of detailed, balanced information concerning air bags and air bag safety so that they could make up their own minds about seriousness and sources of the risks, and about their ability to avoid those risks. For example, they wanted to know why the upper limit on the group of children who should sit in back was stated in terms of age, instead of height or weight.

The educational value of the additional detailed information in the draft long brochure was demonstrated in a number of instances. For example, about 30-40 percent of the participants expressed surprise at learning that air bags differ in design and performance from vehicle model to vehicle model. They asked for more detailed information on how and why the air bags differed. An equal number were surprised to learn that air bags were vented and deflated in seconds after a crash. Before learning that, they thought that an air bag would remain inflated and could smother them or prevent their exiting from their vehicle after a crash. They expressed relief when they were informed that if they had to transport too many children to place them all in the rear seat, they could virtually eliminate any risk by placing a child (preferably the eldest) in the front seat, ensuring that the child properly used the seat belts and remained sitting upright against the back of the vehicle seat, and moving the seat all the way back.








19. As noted more fully in footnote 23 below, it is safer for children sit in the rear seat in all passenger vehicles, even if the vehicle does not have a passenger air bag. NHTSA recommends that all children aged 12 and under sit in the rear seat, regardless of whether there is a passenger air bag in the front seat.


[Back to section 5]   [Table of Contents]   [Next Section]