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Redesigned Air Bags Safer in Tests

December 10, 1998

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Air bags redesigned to avoid killing shorter women in minor crashes appear to be forceful enough to protect larger adults in more severe accidents, government data indicate.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has made public some information on 115 crashes involving the so-called depowered air bags installed in most new autos over the past year.

Federal safety officials said the less forceful bags so far seem to be performing well. They stressed the data sample was small and dozens of investigations are still under way.

The results to date seem to support domestic automakers’ argument that less forceful bags would virtually eliminate the accidental deaths of short women from the devices in minor, low-speed accidents.

Adrian Lund, a senior safety researcher at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said the information ``certainly does not contradict the argument that depowered air bags are helping short-statured adults.″

Federal officials also had feared a tradeoff: In better protecting smaller women, the redesigned air bags might not be strong enough in high-speed crashes to protect men who fail to wear seat belts. But that has not been the case, said government, medical and industry safety officials.

``It doesn’t appear that has been a problem,″ said Dr. Jeffrey Augenstein, national medical director of the Crash Injury Research and Engineering Network. ``It’s early data. But in the cases we’ve looked at, we just don’t see it.″

Only a handful of the cases were higher-speed accidents involving unbelted men.

``The depowered bags are doing what they are supposed to; they are not inflicting fatal or very serious injuries on the small adults, and they are working OK for big people, which was one of the (government’s) concerns,″ said Tom Carr, an engineer and research data collector for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.

Air bags have been blamed for the deaths of at least 121 people _ mostly children and short women _ in low-speed accidents they should have survived, according to the NHTSA. They have also saved an estimated 3,600 lives.

Last year, NHTSA officials scrapped a crash test that automakers said prevented them from installing the less powerful air bags. Domestic automakers quickly put the new air bags in cars.

Twenty-five of the cases involved women 5 feet 4 inches or shorter. None of the women were killed or seriously injured by the less forceful air bag. All but four were wearing seat belts.

In contrast, air bags have been blamed for the deaths of 33 women that height or shorter since 1990; nearly half were wearing seat belts.

A depowered air bag this year did kill an unbelted 4-year-old sitting on an adult’s lap when the air bag deployed, officials said. Other such cases involving children are under investigation.

Automakers have never argued that the new air bags would prevent the deaths of unrestrained children, who are often nearly on top of a deploying air bag. To reduce child deaths, automakers are developing technology to suppress an air bag when a child is in the passenger seat or to deploy an air bag with even less force.

And the government advises parents to put all children under age 13 in the back seats, making sure those children who have outgrown child seats are moved to booster seats.

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