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A Safety Device That Can Kill : Effort is pressed to curb the risk that auto air bags pose to kids

August 26, 1996

Vehicle air bags, introduced in 1987, save about 500 lives a year, according to federal transportation officials. But the more recent installation of air bags on the passenger side in addition to the driver's side has resulted in unforeseen danger for one segment of the motoring public--small children.

Air bags are generally designed to deploy in frontal collisions when a vehicle hits a stationary object at nine to 14 miles per hour. They are intended to protect an average adult, regardless of size or weight. But at least 23 children, including six infants, have been killed in air bag inflation incidents since 1993. Many of the crashes involved occurred at low speeds that probably would not have resulted in serious injuries had the air bag not deployed. The reaction in Washington to this development has been properly strong.

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

In the next 10 to 15 years, air bags made of softer fabrics and deployed with less explosive charges are expected on the market. Not fast enough, says Pena. The federal government has proposed new regulations pushing auto makers to more quickly install "smart air bag" systems. Such systems might use advanced sensors to slow deployment of an air bag, or deactivate it, when a small child is in the seat. That's fine as far as it goes, but what should be done in the interim?

Janet Dewey, executive director of the National Automotive Occupant Protection Campaign, has an answer. The campaign is being pressed by a broad coalition of auto manufacturers, insurers, occupant restraint manufacturers, physicians and child safety and health organizations, as well as government agencies. Over the Labor Day weekend, it intends to publicize ideas that are compelling in their simplicity.

The air bag problem occurs when a child is wearing only a seat belt and not a shoulder belt, or no belt at all, in the front passenger seat. Infants seated in front in rear-facing child safety seats are at similar risk. Both positions place the head of the child dangerously close to the crushing force of a deploying air bag.

According to the campaign, it is far better to place small children in the rear seats, especially in the case of infants using rear-facing seats. It's also imperative to ensure that children are wearing their shoulder belts properly and have not slipped out of them.

That's the kind of common-sense advice that every parent can employ to protect children.

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