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Rules Proposed to Encourage Use of 'Smart' Air Bag Systems

Safety: The government hopes the plan will prompt car makers to install sensors to protect children from injury.

August 02, 1996|DONALD W. NAUSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

DETROIT — The federal government Thursday proposed new auto safety regulations encouraging the use of "smart air bag" systems that would protect young children from injuries resulting from inflating air bags.

The proposed rules are meant to push auto makers to install advanced sensing systems that can detect the presence of small children in the front passenger seat and deactivate the air bag or deploy it at a slower speed.

Air bags, which inflate at up to 200 mph, save an estimated 500 lives a year but also can cause severe injuries. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said 22 children, including six infants, have been killed by air bags since 1993.

"This can't go on," Transportation Secretary Federico Pena said in Washington. "We can't save lives by risking the lives of our children."

NHTSA said auto makers who do not install smart systems would have to place prominent warning labels inside their vehicles, alerting owners to the dangers of air bags to unbelted children or infants in rear-facing child seats.

About 35 million cars have been equipped with driver-side air bags and 15 million with passenger-side bags. By model-year 1997, all cars must be equipped with two front air bags and all light trucks the following year.

The proposed rules, which the agency can adopt after a 45-day public comment period, would also allow auto makers to install cutoff switches to allow manual shut-off of the passenger-side air bag when a child is present.

Reaction to the new rules was mixed. Joan Claybrook, president of the consumer advocacy group Public Citizen and a former NHTSA chairwoman, said the use of smart systems is overdue but allowing an air bag cutoff switch is misguided.

"There will be cases where it will be turned off and not be put back on when needed," she said.

Robert Sanders, a Baltimore lawyer whose 7-year-old daughter was killed by an air bag in October, said the proposal is a step forward. But, he added, the warning label should also say that air bags can be dangerous even to children who are properly belted.

"Until a smart air bag is developed that takes into account the height and weight of the passenger, position in the seat and the force of the crash, parents should be warned to put children in the backseat only," he said.

A spokesman for Ford Motor Co. said a "more comprehensive solution" is needed.

Ford and other auto makers want air bag standards changed to allow them to deploy air bags at slower speeds and higher crash thresholds. But regulators fear this could cause more injuries in higher-speed crashes.

Although air bags have killed at least 18 drivers since 1990, regulators are more concerned with the rising number of passenger deaths and injuries. This is because most are children involved in low-speed crashes.

Already, Mercedes-Benz has developed a seat sensor that can detect a passenger's weight. It will not deploy the air bag if the weight is less than 26 pounds. NHTSA said such a system could be developed to detect passengers weighing 66 pounds or less, the average weight of a 9-year-old child. Such a system would cost about $35, regulators said.

But a Mercedes-Benz spokesman said its system, which is now in its E-Class vehicles, was developed to reduce repair costs related to deployment of air bags when the passenger seat is empty and not as a reliable safety system.

Other companies are working on similar systems. The most advanced would judge the weight and position of a passenger, whether the occupant is wearing a seat belt and the force of the crash. It would then deploy the air bag in stages to best protect the occupant. But it could be five years or more before such systems appear in new vehicles.

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Safety Tips Passenger-side air bags have been blamed for the deaths of 22 children and one adult woman in the U.S. since the late 1980s, according to National Highway Traffic Safety Administration statistics. The NHTSA and other consumer groups offer tips for vehicles with passenger-side air bags:

* Put rear-facing car seats in back seat: Never place an infant in a rear-facing child safety seat in the front of a vehicle with a passenger-side air bag.

* Put children in back seat: Children should ride buckled up in the back seat. This eliminates the possibility of air bag-related deaths or injuries; studies show they are up to 29% safer in the back seat.

* Wear both lap and shoulder belts: Adult and child passengers should wear both shoulder and lap safety belts, low and tight. If older children must ride in the front seat, make sure they always wear both belts. If the shoulder belt does not fit correctly, the child should sit in the back or sit in a booster seat. Many people allow children to slip the shoulder belt behind the back or under the arm--both dangerous habits, particularly in vehicles with air bags.

* Move the front seat back: Because air bags fill with gas at speeds up to 200 miles an hour, passengers or drivers sitting too close to the air bag canister have suffered severe injuries. If a child must be seated in the front or if a forward-facing child restraint must be used in the front seat of a vehicle, particularly one with a passenger-side air bag, always move the seat as far back as possible.

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