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WASHINGTON (AP) -- The less powerful air bags that automakers began installing five years ago have reduced serious, air bag-related injuries and deaths without compromising safety, according to a study by automakers and safety experts.
Robert Strassburger, vice president of the Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said Monday that so far preliminary data from the study validates automakers' decision to install less powerful air bags after a series of deaths and injuries were blamed on air-bag deployments.
Strassburger is one of a group of 13 auto and safety experts from industry, universities and government that is overseeing the three-year, $5 million air bag study, paid for by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. They experts got their first look Friday at preliminary data from the study, which began in 2002.
Strassburger said short women and children, who had been most at risk with the old air bags, were far less likely to suffer serious injury or death from head, neck or chest injuries if they had an air bag installed in 1998 or later.
Researchers are seeing more injuries to the lower extremities, including the legs and feet. Those injuries also are more severe than injuries seen before 1998. But researchers aren't sure if that was produced by air bags or vehicle design changes, Strassburger said.
Overall, he said, the trend is positive.
"You rarely die of a broken leg or a broken ankle," Strassburger said. "As with anything and everything in regulation and engineering, it's a trade-off. This is a trade-off that, literally, we can live with."
Large males who weren't wearing seat belts also had a higher rate of injury, Strassburger said. But he said the data doesn't indicate that large men can break through less powerful air bags, which had been a concern of some safety groups.
"The concern was that we would be saving children and sacrificing adults. That's not happening," Strassburger said.
Applauding the evaluation effort, Chuck Hurley of the Washington-based National Safety Council said the data will allow automakers to respond more quickly to potential problems than they did with first generation air bags.
"What they are doing is paying really close attention to the data," Hurley said. "You want to pick up all the early warning signals."
The study is collecting data from three sites in Florida, Texas and Alabama and merging it with data from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. The panel has examined 425 crashes so far.
Susan Ferguson, a member of the panel and vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, said data from other sources also suggests less powerful air bags aren't compromising safety.
But she said the new study allows automakers to look at data much more quickly than if it relied solely on the government. She said automakers will have a significant body of data by the time the study is completed in 2005.
The study comes as automakers prepare to meet a new air bag standard set by the highway traffic safety administration. By September, automakers will have to have advanced air bags -- including those that detect the weight and position of a passenger -- in 20 percent of their fleet.
To get federal certification, automakers also will have to expand the number of air bag crash tests from three to nine and test their models on dummies in a wider variety of sizes.
Automakers urged the safety administration to decrease the speed of the front-end crash tests from 30 miles per hour to 25 miles per hour, saying the higher speed was forcing them to make stronger air bags that injured passengers.
Some consumer groups criticized that change, saying more fatalities would occur. Ferguson said the new data will help show whether the decision was the right one.
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)