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  • Study: 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 flawed.

    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 findings

    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 issues before.

    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.

    'Preposterous' accusations?

    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."

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