BOISE, Idaho — A parking lot fender-bender that decapitated a 1-year-old girl prompted a federal investigation and drew even more attention Wednesday to the potential dangers of air bags.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration dispatched a team from Los Angeles to investigate Tuesday night's accident, and concerned parents flooded health departments and Volkswagen dealerships with calls for more information.
Police said Alexandra Greer was in a forward-facing child-safety seat when her mother, Rebecca Blackman, 21, rear-ended a car that had just entered a mall parking lot.
The impact deployed the Volkswagen Jetta's passenger-side air bag, which deployed at 200 mph, decapitating the child and throwing her head through the broken door window onto the parking lot.
Coroner Erwin Sonnenberg said the child car seat was not secured to the front seat, and that was a major factor in the decapitation.
"It otherwise would have been a minor traffic accident," police Lt. Tim Rosenvall told the Idaho Statesman.
Aside from the broken window, the only damage was a broken turn-signal light, he said.
Pre-Thanksgiving shoppers shivered against the 28-degree weather as police tried to console the toddler's hysterical mother.
Nancy Rush, the community health education coordinator in Boise, said her office was "getting tons of phone calls" from parents of young children.
"They're very concerned," she said. "They're pretty horrified that a parent who was trying to protect her child had such a gruesome accident."
At Treasure Valley Volkswagen, Service Manager Cary Harp said he was referring calls to company headquarters--and turning down requests for help disconnecting the bags.
"People want to know what it takes to have their air bags disconnected and we can't do that legally," Harp said.
Volkswagen's U.S. headquarters in Auburn, Mich., issued a statement expressing sympathy for the child's family and offering its expertise to help determine exactly what happened.
Air bags were previously blamed for the deaths of 31 children and 20 adults--mostly smaller women--in low-speed crashes they otherwise could have survived. As a result, the NHTSA is requiring strongly worded warning labels about air bags in new cars and is considering other changes, such as bags that deploy less forcefully.
Motorists are being told that children age 12 and younger can be killed by a passenger-side air bag and should ride with seat belts in the rear seat.
Small adults and children who sit in front of an air bag should wear seat belts, and parents should never put a baby in a rear-facing child seat in front of an air bag.