Weakened air bags approved 'Depowered' device said to curb injury to children, small adults

Risks remain, however

Youngsters, large men not wearing seat belts cautioned to take care

March 15, 1997|By Marina Sarris | Marina Sarris,SUN STAFF

Automakers can now begin installing less powerful air bags in vehicles -- a change that the federal government said will reduce the risk of injury and death for children and short adults.

While automakers and some safety organizations generally lauded yesterday's announcement, some advocates cautioned that the newer air bags will pose a threat -- to large unbelted men and to youngsters.

Baltimore attorney Robert C. Sanders, leader of a parents coalition for air bag safety, said, "We are concerned that parents will be lulled into a false sense of security that air bags are now safe for children, and that is not true."

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration acknowledged that risks remain for children who ride in the front seat. "Children 12 and under should ride in the back seat," said agency Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez.

NHTSA is allowing automakers to install "depowered" air bags that deploy with 20 percent to 35 percent less force than they do now.

The change is considered an interim response while federal officials and automakers work on a permanent solution: "smart" air bags that would deploy differently depending on a person's size and the circumstances of the crash.

Air bags have killed 38 children and 24 adults, mostly short women, in low-speed accidents that would not otherwise have been fatal. Most of the victims were unbelted, improperly buckled or in rear-facing child safety seats. However, the bags have saved an estimated 1,750 lives since 1986, federal officials say.

'Not the panacea'

Sanders said the depowered air bag will provide less protection for some people, such as unbelted teen-agers and adults in serious accidents, but will not significantly reduce the danger to younger children.

"Depowering is not the panacea to the child death problem from air bags," said Sanders, whose 7-year-old daughter, Alison, was killed in 1995 by an air bag in a low-speed accident on Charles Street. "With depowering, unbelted teens and adults in high-speed frontal collisions will be exposed to increased risk of injury and death."

Although the traffic safety agency disagreed with his assessment regarding children, it still recommends that they avoid the front seat.

"Our crash testing quite clearly showed that, yes, there are some significant benefits to kids when you depower air bags," said Philip Recht, deputy administrator of NHTSA.

With depowering, one-third to one-half of those at greatest risk of air bag deaths would be saved, said Recht, who did not have exact numbers available late yesterday.

Besides children, Recht said, the change benefits short and belted adults, reducing their risk of air bag-induced injuries.

But he acknowledged that less powerful air bags would be less effective in protecting some unbelted adults in high-speed crashes.

Accepting a 'trade-off'

The agency projects that with a less forceful air bag, 50 to 430 adults will die who otherwise might have been saved. Those numbers are based on two assumptions: that all vehicles have air bags and adults buckle up at the current rates, he said.

"We've said we were willing to accept this trade-off because we don't think air bags should pose a risk to children and belted adults," he said.

However, the agency hopes to boost seat belt use, so "we're optimistic that the real world performance will be better" than those estimates, he said.

An organization of U.S. automakers is "very pleased at the rule that was issued," said Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, which represents Ford Motor Co., Chrysler Corp. and General Motors Corp. "It's essentially what we asked for."

The automakers plan to install less powerful air bags in some of their 1998 model-year cars, focusing first on the most popular vehicles. "By 1999, we will have them all," he said.

The manufacturers are more optimistic than federal officials about the benefits of less powerful air bags to adults and children alike, and they believe that fewer unbelted men could be hurt by the change.

Chuck Hurley of the National Safety Council, a nonprofit, public service group, also expects few trade-offs in safety between men and women.

"Even if there are trade-offs," he said, "the [losers] are likely to be very large males, in very high-speed crashes, who are often drunk and unbelted," he said.

As a policy matter, he said, it's more important to make air bags safer for children and belted adults. But like Sanders, he cautioned that depowering will not eliminate the danger to children.

Questions remain

Other safety advocates, while positive overall, were somewhat more uncertain about the risks to men.

Said Joan B. Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and president of Public Citizen, a public interest lobby, "I think it will be better for children and smaller women, but the question is what kind of trade-off is there for larger males in higher-speed crashes?"

Pub Date: 3/15/97

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