Making a safer air bag 'Smart' rules: Proposed size-sensing devices would protect more occupants of all sizes.

September 20, 1998

AUTO air bag rules proposed recently would save 400 lives -- mostly children and small women. That's the estimated number of people who could be killed by air bags that inflate in an accident.

The Transportation Department rules would require automakers to test a family of crash dummies, from adult males to small

women to 3-year-old children, in developing a new generation of size-sensing "smart" air bags that could adjust the inflating force to the passenger.

Previous air bag tests only required protecting an average-size adult male dummy in a 30-mile-an-hour crash.

Since 1990, air bags have been linked to the deaths of more than 100 people who were smaller than that dummy. But more than 3,000 lives have been saved by air bags. The new rules would DTC set stricter air-bag standards for autos produced in 2003.

Air bags have been around for a dozen years, but it was only two years ago that federal safety officials recognized the death of a child from the force of air bag deployment. A Harvard study a year later found no cases of a child being saved by an air bag, and 38 children killed by the devices.

Last year, regulators allowed car manufacturers to install air bags with 20 to 35 percent less force than previous models, an interim measure to reduce accidental deaths of smaller people. But the goal remains to create "smart" air bags to protect all occupants.

The proposed federal rules are in part a victory for Baltimore's Robert C. Sanders, who formed Parents for Safer Air Bags after the 1995 death of his daughter in a low-speed crash.

The best advice to increase air-bag safety and decrease risks is still to buckle up everyone, to place children in the back seat and to slide the front seat back as far as practical. And use safety seats for small children.

Safety awareness is always the best defense in protecting passengers and drivers.

Pub Date: 9/20/98

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