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In Harm's Way

Steady Climb in Air Bag Deaths Has Industry Searching for Solutions


DETROIT — Driving with his three children just a few blocks from his Baltimore home last October, Robert Sanders leaned forward to change the radio station.

Briefly distracted, he didn't see the red light until it was too late. He slammed on the brakes and skidded into another vehicle. The crash wasn't severe--Sanders said he was only moving about 10 mph at impact--but it was enough to set off the air bags in the 1995 Dodge Caravan.

Sanders and his two sons, who were seated in the rear, were unhurt. But his 7-year-old daughter, Alison, riding in the front passenger seat, was knocked unconscious by the inflating air bag. She died the next day from severe head injuries.

"I found out the hard way that the benefit of air bags to children is far outweighed by the dangers," said Sanders.

Alison Sanders is among 24 passengers--all but one of them children and infants--killed by air bags since 1993. The crashes were at low speeds and would not have caused serious injury if the air bag had not fired.

The cruel irony of children being harmed by a technology that every year saves 500 lives is driving a push by auto engineers and regulators to develop "smart" air bag systems.

These intelligent electronic systems can determine whether seats are occupied or not, the size and position of passengers and whether seat belts are buckled, then deploy the bags on a virtually customized basis to provide the best protection possible given the crash circumstances.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is considering mandating new smart technology to eliminate the danger posed by the bags, which inflate in a tenth of a second at speeds of up to 200 mph.

Rudimentary smart air bag systems have already begun appearing. Mercedes-Benz will introduce in its new SLK roadster a system that will stop air bag deployment if a rear-facing infant seat--the source of many bag-related injuries--is detected in the passenger seat.

More intelligent air bag systems are under development and are expected to appear in new vehicles within the next two to five years, auto industry executives say. The most sophisticated systems, which integrate front and side air bags with advanced seat belts and radar-based crash-avoidance systems, could take up to a decade to perfect.


Though air bags have clearly been a success, they have always been controversial. The auto industry fought them for years, voicing fears of accidental deployment and lawsuits and complaining that customers wouldn't want to pay for them.

Finally in 1984, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole ordered that 1990 vehicles must have either automatic seat belts or air bags. Consumers disliked the automatic belts, and air bags were embraced when then-Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca--a longtime air bag critic--made them standard equipment in some vehicles.

In 1991, President George Bush signed a law requiring driver and passenger air bags in all new cars by September 1997 and in all new trucks a year later. The safety devices have proved so popular that virtually all new cars already have dual air bags as standard equipment.

Today, about 35 million cars on the road are equipped with driver air bags and 15 million have passenger air bags. In the next five years, 30 million more cars will be equipped with dual air bags.

And as their numbers grow, their shortcomings are magnified.

The possibility of injury from air bags has long been known. Most injuries are relatively minor--small cuts, abrasions and bruises. More severe ones ranging from broken bones to eye injuries also occur, particularly to individuals seated too close to the bag or not wearing seat belts.

The number of severe injuries and fatalities is rising steadily. A recent analysis by Ted Miller, a safety economist who does research for the NHTSA, concluded that twice as many children will be killed by air bags this year as will be saved by the devices. The agency does not dispute the finding.

"We are concerned as we look down the road," said Philip Recht, NHTSA deputy administrator. "The number of injuries could multiply as more vehicles are equipped with air bags."

Those most in danger are infants in rear-facing child seats and unbelted or improperly belted children. But since 1990, 18 drivers have also been killed by air bags, mostly small elderly women seated close to the steering wheel.

Researchers looking for solutions to the problem are now focusing on "occupant sensing" technology. Using an array of electronic sensors, these smart systems can determine the size and position of a passenger, whether the seat belt is buckled and the severity of the impending crash. These data determine whether or not to deploy the air bag, and if so, at what speed--even in what direction.

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