Plan aims to revamp air bag policies Proposals include abandonment of 'one-size' device

November 23, 1996|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON -- Flooded by calls from worried consumers, federal transportation officials unveiled yesterday a sweeping plan to reduce air bag fatalities through detailed warning labels and phased-in improvements to air bag technology.

The key to the proposal is an abandonment of the current one-size-fits-all air bag in favor of one that would deploy differently depending on a person's size and the circumstances of the crash.

The "smart" air bags would not be required until the 1999 model-year cars, however, so officials offered several short-term solutions for children and short adults -- the groups at risk of injury and death from air bags.

Those proposals include requiring explicit warning labels on cars with air bags, allowing automakers to install less-powerful air bags, and giving consumers the right to have the devices disconnected.

Those changes are expected to take effect beginning in early 1997, although some could be modified by then.

"There is no one solution," said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which issued the plan. "Here's the bottom line: Everyone agrees that air bags enhance safety but must be improved to minimize the risk to children and some adults."

A group of American automakers said yesterday that it was generally supportive of the initiatives, some of which have been endorsed by Chrysler Corp., Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. "We're pleased," said Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs at the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Some safety advocates said they supported the plan, in varying degrees. "It's the right sort of comprehensive package that we need," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Air bags have killed 31 children and 20 adults, mostly short women, in low-speed accidents that would not otherwise have been fatal. But they have also saved more than 1,500 lives -- a fact Martinez stressed repeatedly.

Many of the children who died were not properly restrained or were in rear-facing child safety seats. Many adult victims also were not wearing safety belts.

Safety advocates say the easiest ways to reduce risks are to wear seat belts, push front seats as far back as possible, and put children in rear seats.

Beginning in three months, Martinez said, new cars and trucks must contain eye-catching labels saying that children age 12 and under are safest in back, and that rear-facing child seats should never be placed in front of an air bag. Within six months, child seats must have similar warnings.

The labels pleased Baltimore attorney Robert C. Sanders, leader of a coalition of parents whose children were killed by air bags. "We felt it urgent that all parents be advised in clear certain terms that air bags could kill their children," he said.

His 7-year-old daughter, Alison, was killed by an air bag in a minor collision on Charles Street last year. Like many parents, he said, he wrongly believed air bags made cars safer for children.

Martinez also announced that, within a year, new cars should contain air bags that deploy with 20 to 35 percent less force than they do now.

Officials hope that measure will help save some children and short adults who would otherwise be killed by the explosive power of rapidly inflating air bags.

But would a less powerful air bag be less effective for larger adults? Martinez said no, but he acknowledged that researchers do not know exactly at what point a large, unbelted adult would be at greater risk.

That proposal is not final, and could be modified.

One crash survivor, however, said yesterday she does not want a less-powerful air bag, even though she is 5 feet 4 inches tall. Kathleen E. Jones, 26, of Blacksburg, Va., said the seat belt and air bag in her Capri saved her life in a high-speed crash in August.

Under the agency proposal, the "depowered" air bags would be used until smart air bags become available, beginning with model year 1999. The smart bags would tailor their deployment to factors such as the speed of the crash and the person's size. The agency has not defined what constitutes a smart air bag and will provide more details early next year. Felrice said it would be hard for automakers to say if they can meet the government's timetable until they see specifics.

The most controversial proposal announced yesterday would allow people to disconnect air bags, probably as soon as early next year.

Under the proposal, which could be formally released within days or weeks, it would no longer be illegal for dealerships and repair shops to deactivate air bags.

Safety advocates immediately discouraged people from taking advantage of this option, which they say will result in more highway deaths.

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