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New and Not Improved Enough

by Julia Sneden

    The previous column,  New and Improved?, dealt with 'improvements' which were improvements that benefited only the marketers, not the customers. It occurs to me that theres another category of improvement that is less than felicitous, and that is an invention which has not been carefully thought through.
    A couple of years ago, I bought a new car.  I love it.  It has all sorts of delightful advances, like a computer which remembers to turn off my lights when I turn off the engine, and an automatic traction control which has saved me a skid more than once.  It also has airbags, which come with a caveat not to sit closer to them than ten inches.  Now, I am less than 5 feet 4 inches tall. My legs are long enough to reach the ground, but unless I sit closer to my steering wheel than ten inches, they wont reach the pedals.  I must therefore stretch my foot to its longest extension, and use only my toe to push the pedal. 
     About two weeks after I got the car, I began having pain in my lower back, right hand side. It took two months of visits to the doctor, to the orthopedist, and to the physical therapist, plus several kinds of prescription medicine which were ineffective, for me to put two and two together and realize the connection between the new car and the back pain.  I then moved my seat forward a couple of inches, and the pain disappeared within a week. 
     Still, I was not happy about being so close to the airbag, which would deploy at something over 200 miles an hour and sock me in the face if I hit anything. I went to my GM dealership and asked if there were any pedal extensions that could help me. Yes, I was told, there are, but the only place that installs them is 40 miles away. Furthermore, once installed, they couldnt be removed for the times my husband might want to use my car, not a frequent occurrence, but nonetheless necessary at times. So that idea was scrapped.
     I wrote to General Motors, and many months later, I received a response that consisted of a news release reminding me that its against the law to disconnect an airbag, and dangerous to sit less than ten inches away from it.  What a marvelous help!  Obviously, their inventiveness doesnt extend to their customer service department. 
    Nowadays,  I am told that one can get special permission to disconnect the airbag, but then Ill probably die in the collision that would have activated the airbag, which then might have decapitated me. Talk about Catch 22.
    Several years ago, when my husband bought his new car, a Pontiac Bonneville, I had another occasion to write to GM.  At that time, I was concerned that the shoulder restraint was fastened to the door frame so high up that when I, short waisted as well as short legged, tried to pull the seatbelt across my chest, it crossed directly over my carotid artery, on the side of my neck. I had a vision of a sudden stop performing an effective arterial ligation. It seemed to me that a simple method of adjusting the height of the seat belt anchor on the car wall would solve the problem.
     I  received in reply (some three months later) a printed sheet warning me that it is illegal not to buckle up. I intended to print my reply in big letters: I ALWAYS BUCKLE UP, BUT WHEN YOUR BELT COLLAPSES MY CAROTID ARTERY, YOULL WISH I HADNT!   I never got around to sending my ominous second message, but perhaps somebody was listening to the first despite the knee-jerk response I had received, because eight years later, when my husband bought a new Bonneville, there it was: an adjustable wall mount for the seat belt. 
    At this point, there is an adjustable wall mount on all Pontiac models. I give GM credit for recognizing that adjustability is vital inasmuch as the average American woman is five feet four inches tall. I think the company was wise to recognize that ignoring short men and women just wasnt smart.  Ive not checked for adjustable restraints in cars made by other manufacturers, but I assume that by now theyve also gotten the message.
    I dont question the efficacy of air bags or shoulder restraints if they are properly designed to work for all drivers. But an air bag which damages the driver who must sit close, or brake and accelerator pedals so far removed that they cause back injury for short-legged people, just arent design improvements. 
    Surely some day the car manufacturers will get the message, but until then, if you have back trouble that can be dated to the purchase of your new car, try moving the seat forward. And if the seatbelt crosses your neck, try sitting on a cushion. It doesnt do much for your leg reach, but at least you wont strangle or cut off the flow of blood to your brain.



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