WASHINGTON — Even before government-mandated "smart" air bags come on the market, fewer people are being killed by air bags in otherwise survivable, low-speed car crashes, according to government figures released Tuesday.
Accident statistics show that eight children and four adults were confirmed to have been killed by air bags through Nov. 1, compared to the 23 children and 17 adults killed in all of 1997. If the trend holds, 1998 could show the first decline in air bag deaths of the 1990s.
Consumer advocates and government officials say the shift signals that a broad-based campaign for air bag safety is saving lives, at the same time that air bag technology gradually improves. In a related safety campaign, police nationwide are planning to ticket parents who don't buckle up their kids this Thanksgiving. Federal officials recommend that children under the age of 13 ride in the rear seat.
"The education and enforcement effort to buckle up and put kids in the back seat is becoming more effective," said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, a Washington-based consumer group.
He added: "These statistics are encouraging, but I don't hold them as saying the problem is over. One death is one death too many."
Air bags--the major auto safety innovation of the '80s and '90s--were designed to protect an average-size man not wearing his seat belt in a head-on crash. However, that made them powerful enough to kill children and small women in minor accidents.
The government is moving to require that auto makers install high-tech air bags that would deploy more slowly in a low-speed crash or if a sensor detects a child in the front seat. The so-called "smart" air bags won't be on the market until the fall of 2002. The drop in air bag deaths is not expected to affect the proposed requirements.
Philip Recht, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, urged caution in interpreting the accident figures, since there is often a lag confirming that a death was caused by an air bag. Nonetheless, he said they fit in with a recent decline in the rate of air bag deaths among children.
Preliminary estimates showed that in 1996, about 35 children were killed for every 100,000 air bag deployments, Recht said. The rate for 1997 is expected to be in the "low-to-mid 20s," and the 1998 rates could well be lower, he said.
"If we look at 1998, if this kind of pattern holds, it indicates that the absolute number of deaths will [also] come down before the year is out," said Recht. However, he said it is too early to make a prediction.
When the first air bag deaths were reported, the government responded by allowing car owners to install on-off switches. Later, it required auto makers to place warning labels in new cars, and gave manufacturers approval to install air bags that inflate less forcefully, beginning with 1998 models.
Recht said initial reports show that 1998 models--most of which feature the lower-power air bags--are proving safer. Thus far, one serious incident has been confirmed in a 1998-model car; an unbelted pregnant woman driving a Mitsubishi Mirage lost her baby as a result of an air bag impact. Besides using less power, Recht said newer air bags have other design improvements.
Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the American Automobile Manufacturers Assn., was also cautious in interpreting the statistics. "They certainly don't indicate that the problem is continuing to get worse or remaining at the current rate," he said. "Hopefully these numbers will stay down."
The reason for the caution is the sometimes months-long delay in reporting and confirming air bags deaths to the federal government. However, taking unconfirmed cases into account, there still appears to be a significant change between 1997 and 1998.
For all of 1997, there were a total of 54 confirmed and unconfirmed deaths caused by air bags. The comparable figure for the first 10 months of this year is 31.