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The Goods | YOUR WHEELS

Can Somebody Out There Build a Better Air Bag?

March 18, 1997|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The federal government has just issued new rules that allow auto manufacturers to sharply reduce the explosive force used to inflate air bags, a response to growing evidence that air bags can kill children and small adults.

The revisions raise questions about a technology that has until now achieved remarkable public acceptance. It appears to many experts that regulators and the auto industry are only going to confuse consumers as they stumble into a new generation of air bags.

AirBelt Systems, LLC, a Bel-Air development company, has proposed what it believes is a long-term answer.

Instead of cutting back the power that inflates bags, AirBelt has developed a system that would sharply reduce the inflation force only in the first 15-thousandths of a second after an accident.

Air bags fully inflate in about one-tenth of a second or about 100 milliseconds. AirBelt research shows that fatal injuries occur in the initial 15 milliseconds, according to chief executive Larry Shultz. Shultz says AirBelt's system would provide safety for adults equal to today's high power bags, but protect even unbelted children.

The AirBelt bags are inflated by compressed gas, rather than the standard pyrotechnic charge. The firm has also developed a special throttling valve that can alter inflation rates throughout deployment. Another benefit, Shultz claims, is that the gas is at room temperature and cannot cause burns, which sometimes occur with existing air bags.

A representative for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said that AirBelt's proposals are serious and deserve to be considered. A videotape of tests the firm has conducted is eye-opening. The impact on small children by existing air bags is so violent and forceful that they are tumbled head over heals within a passenger compartment. The AirBelt system appears far less forceful.

* Vartabedian responds to automotive questions of general interest. Write to Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, D.C. 20006 or e-mail to Ralph.Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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