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Tests Show Harm of Side Air Bags

April 19, 1999

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Federal tests released today indicate Mercedes-Benz side air bags could seriously injure a young child leaning against a door pressing his face against the window or leaning out the window.

A safety engineer for DaimlerChrysler AG, Mercedes’ parent company, said its testing showed the side air bags were safe, even for children found in such awkward positions.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and its Canadian counterpart, Transport Canada, recently conducted more than 40 tests on side air bags installed by eight automakers. In the tests, dummies representing young children were leaning against doors, leaning out car windows or kneeling backward in the seat.

None of the dummies were properly seated and restrained in child seats or booster seats, which automakers said would eliminate the problem of any serious side air bag injuries.

In one NHTSA test on a Mercedes E-class car, the force on the child’s neck from the deploying side air bag was about four times the acceptable injury level recognized by government safety experts, indicating the potential for serious injury, government researchers said.

Several test measurements indicated chest injuries ``up to six times (the recommended) injury levels,″ NHTSA’s Randa Radwan Samaha said.

In that test, a dummy representing a 3-year-old was kneeling on the passenger seat and the child’s head was leaning out the window. With the child’s face against the window, the force on the child’s neck was about two times the acceptable injury level, government tests show.

However, Susan Cischke, a top safety engineer for DaimlerChrysler, said the Mercedes’ air bag systems ``are very safe and effective.″

Eight of nine vehicle models tested by Transport Canada had air bags that potentially could cause injury to children leaning or kneeling against a window or turned around backward on a seat, government officials said. It was unclear whether the tests showed those injuries could be serious, as indicated in some of the Mercedes tests.

The eight models were BMW 323i, Ford Explorer, Saab 9-3, Volkswagen Beetle, Audi A6 and A4, Volvo S80, all from 1999; and the 1998 model General Motors Pontiac Transport.

There have been no reports of serious injuries or deaths from side air bags in crashes, and federal regulators believe the safety devices can offer substantial protection in side-impact crashes.

However, NHTSA officials have been acting to prevent problems with side air bags in light of the public outcry over deaths from air bags deploying from the front of autos. Those airbags have been blamed for killing 131 people, including 73 children, government statistics show.

NHTSA convened a public meeting Monday to encourage automakers voluntarily to develop common testing procedures for side air bags and share testing data to reduce injuries to children. Automakers said they support the concept.

Dr. Ricardo Martinez, NHTSA’s chief, said nine automakers have shared extensive side air bag testing data with the agency.

``After reviewing the test data, we had some concern as to whether unintended side effects had been adequately addressed by all the manufacturers,″ Martinez said.

``If we see safety risks materializing, especially to children, we will be quick to intervene,″ he said. ``On the other hand, we do not want to overreact and have a chilling effect on a technology that obviously has great lifesaving potential.″

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