August 22, 1996 in Nation/World

Automakers Want Kinder,Gentler Air Bag Industry Will Ask For Changes In Federal Safety Regulations


To reduce death and injuries from air bags, U.S. automakers will soon ask that a cornerstone safety regulation be reshaped to allow them to put less-violent air bags in cars.

Possibly as early as Friday, automakers are expected to unveil a plan to make air bags gentler and, it is hoped, less deadly - although they can’t promise this - especially to children who are now being killed at a rate of one a month by passenger-side air bags.

“The less violent we can make the air bag blow, the better off you’ll be and your children will be,” said Vann Wilber, the director of vehicle safety for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, which is drafting the plan to make air bags safer.

There’s no proof yet that their proposal would reduce deaths or serious injuries. It could actually increase the risk of injury or death in high-speed crashes when belts aren’t used, according to auto makers, insurers and federal safety officials.

Officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration aren’t convinced that changing safety standards or testing is the answer.

“We don’t think it is the solution,” said NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez, “There’s no evidence that this will stop deaths and injuries from air bags.”

He believes education is the answer, which is why he recently announced plans for labels in new cars that warn that air bags can kill and advise proper use.

But car makers believe that’s not enough. They say the labels won’t save enough lives because they’ll end up in the trash or with seldom-read owners manuals.

Air bags save many lives, by some estimates more than 1,500 since they were introduced a decade ago. But since 1993, at least one adult and 22 children have been killed by passenger-side air bags, according to federal safety records.

Air bags explode from dashboards at upward of 200 miles per hour, even in slow-speed crashes that people should walk away from.

Too often, children and small, frail adults not wearing seat belts are the ones who don’t walk away. Air bags have broken necks, crushed chests and nearly decapitated children, experts say.

The safest place for children is in seat belts or child safety seats in a rear seat, they add. Infants in rear-facing child seats should never be in the front seat of a car with an air bag.

Federal safety laws now require air bags to be powerful and quick enough to protect an unbelted male driver or passenger in a 30 mile-per-hour head-on crash.

But the AAMA says that help is less necessary now because as many as 70 percent of people say they regularly buckle up. The association wants to develop standards that take that into account, paving the way for less-violent air bags.

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