New Air Bags Safer for Children
Federal Data Show Deaths Down Since 1997
March 9, 2000
DETROIT (AP) -- Newer, less-powerful
air bags pose less danger to passengers while offering as much protection as
older models, according to a new study.
The study, by the Insurance
Institute for Highway Safety, is being used by the institute and automakers
to argue that the less-powerful air bags are safer. However, two other safety
groups -- the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen -- say the study is
Air bags have been blamed
for at least 150 deaths -- mainly young, unbelted children and smaller-statured
women -- in low-speed crashes that they otherwise should have survived.
Since March 1997, most automakers
have installed air bags that deploy with less force, and federal data show that
air-bag deaths have declined sharply for vehicles made since then.
Concern about protection
But some National Highway
Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) officials are concerned that the less-forceful,
"depowered" air bags may not adequately protect unbelted adults in severe crashes.
The insurance institute
study examined federal data from 59 fatal crashes between 1989 and 1996. In
nine cases, researchers concluded the air bag was the cause of death.
In all other cases where
a cause of death could be determined, researchers concluded that none of the
victims had died because the air bag was not powerful enough to cushion them
in high-speed accidents.
"Depowered air bags ...
should reduce the risk of fatal air bag-related injuries without an offsetting
increase in deaths from steering wheel contact from drivers bottoming out the
air bag," researchers wrote.
Safety group disputes
The study is being challenged
by the Washington-based Center for Auto Safety, which has accused the insurance
institute of having a "political agenda" to help automakers.
The insurance institute
is funded by the insurance industry and has tangled with automakers over safety
In a Feb. 20 letter to federal
regulators, Center for Auto Safety Executive Director Clarence Ditlow said a
review of the same cases the study examined found four cases, instead of nine,
where the air bag was the cause of death.
He also said the institute
left out more recent data from the NHTSA that includes up to four cases where
air bags did not deploy forcefully enough to cushion passengers in crashes.
Ditlow contends the institute
left out the cases to further its argument with federal regulators against a
proposed test for air bags. The institute is urging NHTSA to adopt a lower-speed
crash test to certify air bags, a move favored by automakers and opposed by
the Center for Auto Safety and Public Citizen.
Public Citizen has echoed
the Center for Auto Safety's claims that the study was flawed, adding it failed
to account for improvements in air bag technology.
Institute President Brian
O'Neill said preliminary information about potential cases of air bags failing
to inflate with enough force wasn't available until after the study was submitted
for peer review.
He also dismissed Ditlow's
claim that the institute was in league with automakers as "preposterous."
Tim Hurd, a NHTSA spokesman,
confirmed the agency was examining data from the four crashes in which the air
bags may not have deployed with enough force, adding that the insurance institute
will be looked at "very closely."