Dangers of air bags Deadly impact: Young passengers belong in rear seats, in proper safety restraints.

November 10, 1996

"AIR BAG SAFETY: Buckle everyone. Children in back." That vital message should be burned into the minds of all motorists, and soon should be emblazoned by federal rule on all new cars.

Air bags save lives -- when used with safety belts. Some 1,500 lives have been saved by these instant-inflating bags in frontal auto crashes.

But air bags can kill children -- even if they are properly belted. After several inconclusive reports, instances of child deaths from the 200-mile-per-hour force of air bag deployment are coming to light. That potential threat to children (and smaller-sized adults) is quickly multiplying. There are 22 million vehicles in the U.S. with passenger-side air bags, and all 1998 model passenger cars will be required to have them.

Carmakers want emergency permission from regulators to reduce the inflation force of passenger-side air bags by 25 PTC percent. That won't notably impair the cushioning safety for properly restrained adults in crashes, they say, but it could significantly reduce the risk of head and neck injuries to kids in the front seat.

Other proposals include a manual disabling switch for the passenger air bag (now allowed in two-seaters and pickups) and size-sensors to automatically control air bag deployment velocity (still in the development stage).

There are some problems with these ideas, despite their good intentions. But the overriding concern is the difficulty of total reliance on passive technology for auto safety.

Air bags are no panacea, but must be used properly. Anti-lock brakes for accident prevention are discounted by several studies, even if they can help under certain conditions.

That is why all motorists must seat children, with proper safety restraints, in the rear to avoid serious air-bag injury -- and to reduce the danger in crashes even when the car does not have dual air bags.

In time, this life-and-death message may become second nature. Three decades after seat belts became common, regular usage is rising -- but is still only 70 percent.

Technological change, and vivid safety labeling, can help. But thinking, safety-conscious human drivers are still the most crucial element in saving the lives of little passengers.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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