Baltimore man's effort helps get air bag rule U.S. to announce plan to ensure device's safety

September 14, 1998|By LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- It should have been a forgettable, low-speed fender-bender. Instead, Robert Sanders carried his dying daughter from the minivan he had been driving after an air bag had knocked her unconscious.

Today, thanks in no small measure to Sanders' dogged, painful crusade to prevent such tragedies from happening to others, the U.S. Transportation Department plans to announce a rule designed to ensure that air bags are safe for children as well as full-size adults.

Federal rules require only that air bags protect belted and unbelted full-size male dummies in head-on, 30-mph crashes into an immovable barrier.

But air bags powerful enough to do that can inflict deadly force on small bodies. As of Aug. 1, 65 children had been killed by air bags, almost all in accidents that would not otherwise have been fatal.

The proposed rule to be unveiled today would require air bags to pass safety tests using crash dummies of all sizes -- large adult male, small adult female, child and infant.

It will be open to public comment for 90 days and may be modified before it takes effect. Lobbyists for the automakers complain that the tests will be the most complicated ever required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Sanders, who left a law practice in Baltimore to push his crusade, believes many of the 65 children killed by air bags would be alive today if the rule had been in effect. A quietly intense man of 48 who was once a business lawyer, he keeps many of their pictures in his office. His daughter Alison is among them.

She was 7 when her father, tuning the radio, failed to stop in time for a red light and slid into another van at less than 10 mph. It had been Alison's turn to sit in the front seat. Her two brothers, who were seated in the back, were unhurt.

Sanders, who organized Parents for Safer Air Bags after recovering from the shock of his daughter's death, spent his savings as he told strangers about how his daughter died in an accident for which he was responsible.

"I have been compelled and driven by forces larger than me," Sanders says. "I don't feel like I am working alone. I feel the presence of my daughter and the other children. I am merely an agent. I am being pushed on the crest of a wave."

Pub Date: 9/14/98

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