The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday it has begun an inquiry into the air bag-related deaths of seven children riding in Hyundai Motor Co.'s 1995-97 Accent economy cars.
The agency has been concerned that air bags deploy and inflate with such force that the impact can injure or even kill a small child or adult. As a result, some air bag makers have reduced the explosive charge used to deploy the bags, although that has brought complaints that the bags don't work effectively enough to protect a 200-pound adult who is not wearing a seat belt.
The Accent, imported and distributed by Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America Inc., ranked first in the rate of deaths caused by passenger-side air bags, according to a comparison of 80 models in the last five years.
The agency on Wednesday closed its inquiry into DaimlerChrysler's minivan air bags, which have been blamed in the deaths of 12 children. The agency decided that the number of deaths attributed to air bags in the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town and Country van were not out of line considering the number of those vans on the road.
Hyundai, however, sells far fewer vehicles than DaimlerChrysler or other auto makers included in the study, so the rate of child deaths per 1,000 vehicles is higher.
A spokesman said Hyundai Motor America believes it has been singled out because of a statistical sampling that is not a valid measure of vehicle safety.
The South Korean auto importer said it is aware of fatalities involving children under age 5 who were riding in the front seats of Accent models and suggested that improper use of seat belts was the cause or a contributing factor.