Switch sought to slower air bags Chrysler, Ford, GM ask U.S. safety officials to give emergency OK

November 02, 1996|By NEW YORK TIMES NEW SERVICE Sun staff writer Marina Sarris contributed to this article.

WASHINGTON -- Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have asked federal safety authorities for emergency permission to switch to air bags that inflate more slowly, seeking to reduce the risk of death from neck injuries among infants, children and short adults when air bags inflate at up to 200 miles an hour.

The automakers said yesterday that they would begin installing such air bags within months in cars sold in Canada, where no government permission is needed. They also said they would work harder to teach adults to keep children in the back seat.

Since 1990, about 30 children, including infants, have died when they were struck by passenger-side air bags, which are now coming into common use. Safety officials say the number of such deaths is likely to rise rapidly unless something is done, because passenger-side air bags now are nearly universal on new cars.

But safety officials stressed that about 1,100 lives had been saved by air bags since they came into common use. The automakers said they had no research data on how much the slower air bags would affect the casualty rate, but that they thought slowing the inflation speed of bags by 25 percent would help. They said the bags would probably not reduce the safety factor for average-sized adults, for whom they were designed.

The slower air bags would be very similar to the ones used today, but with less of the explosive propellant that inflates them. They are not expected to cost any more than those now in use.

Switching over will take some time, but the first cars with the slower-inflating air bags could be on the road in Canada in a few months, said Andrew H. Card Jr., president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, who represented the companies.

But the automakers cannot use them in the United States until the standard is changed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Card said yesterday that their education campaign would teach people "how to sit in the car, how to buckle up and how to respect an air bag."

Card, who was transportation secretary in the Bush administration, said he had approved the air-bag rules now in force. They are based on protecting a 165-pound man of median height who is not wearing a seat belt and who is in a car that is in a frontal collision at 30 miles per hour.

At the time Card approved the regulations -- on Dec. 14, 1992 -- only about 15 percent of front-seat passengers used seat belts; now the number is about 67 percent.

An air bag that opens 25 percent more slowly would provide the same level of protection to belted occupants, Card said, and a study of "real-world crashes" of unbelted occupants showed that the depowered air bags would have been sufficient, he said.

"We're saying the crash test for the unbelted dummy does not best reflect what's happening in the real world," Card said.

According to safety engineers, current air bags can injure babies in infant seats that keep them too close to the dashboard, or children who are wearing the lap belts but slip the shoulder belts behind them. The air bags can hit some short adults too hard and too high.

"The injury that smaller-statured individuals seem to die of mimics a hanging," Card said. "Basically, it's a broken neck."

He said the three auto companies would write to the owners of all 22 million vehicles with passenger-side air bags and remind them not to seat children or infants in the front and would put additional warning labels in new cars, beyond the ones already used, which are often tucked away on the sun visors or in a part of the passenger compartment visible only when the passenger door is open.

The National Transportation Safety Board recently called for better labels and an education campaign, and predicted a sharp increase in the number of children killed by air bags as they became standard on the passenger side.

Robert C. Sanders, a Baltimore attorney who leads the Parents' Coalition for Air Bag Warnings, commended the automakers on some of their proposals but expressed "grave concerns" about one.

The decision to send warning letters to the owners of cars with passenger air bags "is a good step, but sadly it comes a year too late," Sanders said.

He said the NTSB recommended a letter campaign a year ago this month.

"Had [the automakers] done so at that time, many, if not all, of the 14 children who have died since then would not have died," he said.

His 7-year-old daughter Alison was killed by an air bag in a minor traffic accident in Baltimore in October 1995.

Sanders also supports the proposal to put warning labels in cars, but he said the language must be clear and strong enough.

The coalition has "grave concerns" about the proposal to decrease the deployment speed of air bags because that could make them less effective in protecting adults, he said.

"We think the better solution is to put children in the back seat until the industry develops a smart air bag that deploys differently depending on if an adult or child is in the passenger seat," he said.

In the long term, safety experts want "smart" air bags. But "it's not likely that a breakthrough technology will be on the market until well into the turn of the century," Card said, because of the need for testing.

A spokesman for the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Tim Hurd, said the companies' petition would be answered "soon," but he would not elaborate.

A spokesman at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Stephen L. Oesch, said: "We are very supportive of the action they've taken today."

In high-speed crashes that kill the driver or passenger, Oesch said, the problem is not the air bag -- it is that the crash crushes the structure of the vehicle.

The automakers, he said, should be allowed "more design freedom" to develop air bags that work well with people big and small.

Pub Date: 11/02/96

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