WASHINGTON - Spurred by a rising toll of infants and children, federal regulators last week began looking for ways to convince automakers to send letters to their millions of customers explicitly warning about the dangers of passenger-side airbags.
A warning letter is one of the two demands that the parents of eight of the 28 children killed by airbags since 1993 presented in a meeting last week with top officials of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
They also demanded changes in the wording of proposed new warning stickers that will go into all new vehicles.
'We know exactly what they want,' NHTSA officials said after the meeting. 'The question is how to get to that point. There are a number of ways to get there.'
One way is for NHTSA to rule that passenger-side airbags are defective, even though they've saved an estimated 88 lives.
That would allow NHTSA to force automakers to send a letter to owners, warning them to make sure children sit in the back seat and are properly belted.
Such a defect finding, however, might expose automakers to more liability lawsuits. The companies might decide to avoid the exposure and go along with a voluntary notification.
But NHTSA is reluctant to rule passenger airbags defective because they are effective at saving lives and reducing serious injuries for people over age 12. A defect finding might raise undue alarm.
Passenger airbags deploy at some 200 mph because they must fully inflate within 30 to 50 milliseconds. Babies in rear-facing child seats and children sitting too close to the bag are thus in serious danger.
Children are in particular danger because their developing bodies are more easily damaged by the force. And, because they are shorter, an airbag would hit children in the head instead of the chest.
Automakers insist they have done everything possible to make sure customers know that airbags could be dangerous for babies in rear-facing child seats, or people who were out of position or not wearing their seat belt.
'It breaks our hearts that there are child fatalities associated with the misuse of our products,' said Robert Lange, a top General Motors safety official. 'It's too easy to say it's somebody else's fault for not telling me about it when all of the informational technologies were used to do just that.'
Automakers say the child deaths prove that parents have not read or ignored the written warnings that are already supplied, which is a reason there is opposition to a letter.
DEATH WITH PROPER USE
Now there is evidence that even a properly belted child sitting in the front seat could be killed.
NHTSA said last week a properly belted 5-year-old girl, Frances Ambrose of Nashville, Tenn., was killed by an airbag in a 12 to 14 mph crash Sept. 11.
In a grimly clear indication of the way the problem is gaining momentum, the girl is one of 14 children killed by airbags so far this year. NHTSA officials estimate that the toll could rise to at least one a week by 2000, when passenger-side bags will be mandatory.
So the issue has taken on a new face, and NHTSA believes the auto industry may be more willing now to issue a warning letter to owners of cars with passenger airbags.
Robert Sanders of Silver Spring, Md. - the leader of the Parents' Coalition for Air Bag Warnings that met with NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez last week - said there is a false sense of security that a properly belted child is immunized from airbag injury.
'There's a substantial body of evidence that even properly belted children are also being killed and injured by airbags,' said Sanders, whose 7-year-old daughter, Alison, was killed by an airbag just over a year ago.
The coalition also believes the big, bold warning labels for new vehicles proposed by NHTSA in August were a good start, but the wording was wrong. Instead of saying that airbags can be dangerous, the new labels should say that under no circumstances should a child ride in the front seat.
A written warning to people who own vehicles with passenger airbags is NHTSA's third priority, though, said Martinez.
The agency first will finalize its rule requiring bold warning labels on new cars, then pass a rule providing some short-term technological solution, Martinez said.
'Then we'll deal with what to do with existing cars,' Martinez said.
After the meeting, Martinez reaffirmed his strongest warning yet to parents, saying that no child under 12 should be allowed to sit in the front seat of a moving vehicle.
Everyone agrees the ultimate solution is intelligent airbags that can tailor deployments to the size and position of the passenger. But the technology that would make that possible is five to 10 years away from broad use in the marketplace, experts say.