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Automakers Embracing Side Air Bags

January 7, 1998

DETROIT (AP) _ When Ford Motor Co.’s Mercury division asked women what they wanted in a new sports coupe, safety was one of the items at the top of the list.

So as a way to attract those buyers, the company decided that in its new vehicle, the Cougar, it will offer side air bags, which help protect people from injuring themselves by hitting the car’s windows or columns in an accident.

``The side air bag just adds a little bit of additional protection,″ said Ford spokeswoman Lynda Christoph.

More and more automakers are embracing the side air bag technology. Although normally found in expensive European cars, the new air bags are in Volkswagen’s new Beetle, the Cougar and the new Toyota Solara sports coupe _ all unveiled at the North American International Auto Show this week.

Joan Claybrook, who heads Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group Public Citizen, said the new side air bags will become more prevalent over the next few years. The technology can reduce injuries from side crashes as much as 50 percent, she said.

``It shows that safety is selling and is important to the public,″ Claybrook said.

The wide reports of problems with front passenger-side air bags should not affect the side air bags, industry experts said. Passenger-side air bags have saved more than 2,600 lives, according to government estimates, but they also have been blamed for the deaths of 87 people, including 49 children.

If side air bags are mounted in the seats of cars, they inflate forward to cover the door and window to protect the passenger. Because the explosive force of the air bag is not going toward the passenger, there is less risk of injury, said Robert Austin, director of marketing communications for Volvo Cars of North America Inc.

``It’s not coming at you, it’s coming past you,″ he said.

Volvo includes the equipment as standard on all its vehicles, and Austin said wider use of the side air bags will trickle down to lower-priced cars as the technology becomes cheaper.

Steve Keyes, VW of America spokesman, said all the company’s cars will have the technology by the end of the year. Ford’s Christoph also called the side air bags on the Cougar _ the company’s first vehicle with the option _ the beginning step in a plan to phase in wider use of the product.

In the future, air bags may drop down from the roof of vehicles to provide further side impact protection. Air bags may also eventually make their way to the back seat as an option, experts say.

Honda has already made room for rear-seat air bags in the latest design of the Accord, although the technology is not yet available, said company spokesman Andrew Boyd.

``Even though there has been some problems with the designs of air bags, the public realizes their important value,″ Claybrook said.

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