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Crash Victim Crusades for Air Bags in Autos : One-Woman Fight Is to the Point: 'Seat Belts Aren't Enough'

September 22, 1985|LYNN SIMROSS | Times Staff Writer

In April of 1980, life seemed to be going very much Annette Paluska's way.

She had a job she enjoyed as an advertising and marketing consultant in Miami. She had a lot of friends and an active social life.

She taught tennis and played on the Avon circuit (a now-defunct minor-league professional circuit) in Florida, hoping one day to make it to the Virginia Slims' women's pro tennis circuit.

She had recently gotten her private pilot's license, and had spent the previous football season as a cheerleader for the Miami Dolphins. She was looking forward to trying out for the cheerleading squad again the next year.

Near-Fatal Accident

But on April 27, that good life changed forever.

Annette Paluska had a head-on collision that nearly killed her. She suffered severe head injuries, brain damage and spent several months in a coma, several years recuperating.

"The paramedics who found me thought I was dead," Paluska said during an interview at her sister's home in Santa Monica, where she now lives. "I spent months in a coma, then in a vegetable state, where all I did was sit and drool. I was in the ozone. Then there was the baby stage, hyperactive, pig-out stage. It was all horrible for my family. I had a seat belt on, but it didn't save me. It ripped from the floor in the force of the collision."

Today, Annette Paluska is on a one-woman crusade--to have cars equipped with air bags as well as seat belts.

Paluska has appeared at press conferences about the issue with Assembly Speaker Willie L. Brown (D-San Francisco) and consumer advocate Ralph Nader this year, and has currently embarked on a letter-writing campaign to gain support for her cause from movie, television and sports personalities.

She also spends time writing magazine articles and opinion pieces for newspapers about the air-bag issue and appearing on TV, on talk shows and giving rebuttals to anti-air-bag editorials.

Paluska applauded Speaker Brown's mandatory seat-belt bill that passed the state Legislature last weekend, and is expected to be signed shortly by Gov. George Deukmejian, but she still says she wants an air bag in her car as well.

"Only one out of a hundred people survives brain damage like I had," Paluska said. "And only one of those three ever comes back to full reality. I was given a second chance. I represent all the brain-damaged out there in the ozone where I was. I speak for them. They can't speak for themselves. I don't want to see anybody go through what I did."

Paluska went to Sacramento twice this year (February and March) to testify before the Legislature on behalf of having seat belts and air bags become mandatory equipment in autos in California. She also testified before a U.S. House subcommittee on the matter in April, along with Joan Claybrook, president of the Washington-based Public Citizen Inc., a consumer-rights group.

Claybrook, interviewed by phone, said she was impressed with Paluska's testimony.

"I think what she's doing (Paluska's crusade) is just right," said Claybrook, who has been speaking in support of mandatory air-bag installation in cars for 15 years. "She is a very intelligent and articulate individual. She is very good at expressing the pain and plight of being an auto-crash victim without being overly emotional."

Claybrook also lauded the passage of the new law by the California Legislature, which was supported by insurance companies and consumer groups. Even the auto industry withdrew its opposition to the bill before it passed the Assembly.

But Claybrook also took the opportunity to lambaste the auto industry for "not even offering it (the air bag) for sale as an option."

Paluska agreed, saying adamantly, "I don't want just a seat belt, that's not enough. I want seat belts and air bags. They complement each other. Nobody who is dead can testify about how seat belts aren't enough."

Mercedes-Benz is the only auto manufacturer that offers air bags in its cars. Air bags are standard equipment on the Mercedes 500 series, and optional on a majority of its other models. Other auto makers have contended that air bags don't work as effectively as proponents claim, are too costly (about $300 mass produced) and the public would resent the inclusion of safety devices over which drivers and passengers have no control.

The issue of air bags, the cushion-like devices in the steering wheel or dashboard that inflate on hard impact and were first patented in 1952, has long been a political and technical football.

The new California bill would require drivers to use seat belts beginning Jan. 1, and auto makers to install air bags or other automatic crash protections in California cars by 1989.

A $20 Fine

With the new state law, California drivers would face fines of $20 for the first offense of not wearing a seat belt; $50 for subsequent offenses. Auto makers who do not install automatic crash protections in new cars sold in California after Sept. 1, 1989, would face fines up to $500 for each automobile sold in the state.

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