air bag
nothing Safety first
In response to the growing furor over child deaths from air bags, the National Highway Transportation Safety Agency (NHTSA) has proposed changes: deactivitang switches, and making bags less aggressive. Each change has its pitfalls, however, as we'll see shortly. Before we do, let's note that the agency has posted a long series of documents on the issue.

Deactivation
How 'bout we just disconnect the deadly air bags and call them a failed experiment? The NHTSA has proposed that manufactureres be allowed to install cut-off switches for cars lacking enough of a back seat to accomodate a rear-facing infant seat (here's the black-and-white).

Turn them off NHTSA has a separate proposal that would allow owners to have air bags disconnected, and this suggestion arouses more concern among safety experts. "Air bags save lives, they're a wonderful, ingenious device," says Steven Batterman, a University of Pennsylvania auto accident specialist. He says allowing drivers to shut off air bags when children are riding in the passenger seat is "an unmitigated disaster, because people will forget to put them back on [when an adult is riding]. It's a terrrible way to go."

Although the American Academy of Pediatrics does not have a stance on deactivation, injury-committee head Murray Katcher says he fears that drivers would forget to turn it back on when an adult was in the passenger seat. Along with everybody else interviewed for this article, Katcher stressed that the solution is simple and available today: put kids in the back seat, and never put a rear-facing car seat in a front seat with an air bag.

Depowering
A second solution, one that the auto companies favor, is taking some of the steam out of the bags -- "depowering" them. The

Slow them down goal is to reduce injuries to children by removing roughly 25 percent of the power. NHTSA says a 20 to 35 percent reduction in power would have the effect of "substantially preseverving" the life-saving potential in high-speed crashes, while reducing the risk to childern and small adults.

The Why Files performed a micro-survey of experts on this issue, and here's what we found.

Roy Alson, an emergency medicine specialist in North Carolina, gave the Missouri reply: show me. "Slower airbags might reduce the airbag injuries that have been reported, but may decrease the effectiveness of the bag in preventing" the collision between the occupant and the interior of the vehicle, where most injuries occur. Although the image of a bag inflating in your face at 150 mph is unsettling, as is the gross number of "air-bag injuries," most of them are "minor," says Alson, including "abrasions and superficial burns from the gas."

Batterman acknowledges that reducing the power might lessen the impact on vehicle occupants, but similarly wants to await the results of some testing to see if it would have a deleterious effect on safety."

Katcher warns that it's not safe to assume that children would be safe in a slower deployment: "We don't have good measurements for that yet."

What about making air bags smarter? Can't they figure out who's in the seat in front of them?

Perhaps we should give air bags brains.


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