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Debate rages over air bags' risk to children

seat September 16, 1996
Web posted at: 11:30 p.m. EDT

From Correspondent Anthony Collings

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Air bags are supposed to save lives, but they can be deadly for children. (15 sec. /570K QuickTime movie) movie icon

Seven-year-old Alison Sanders died in a low-speed crash in Baltimore, even though she was wearing a seat belt.

"I looked over at Alison and I saw that she was slumped unconscious, lying sideways in her seat," recalls her father, Robert Sanders. "She had been struck by the air bag, and was immediately brain dead."

Sanders co-founded a group seeking tougher standards. Some two dozen children have been killed by passenger side air bags, some even when wearing safety belts properly or in rear-facing safety seats.

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Now there's a fight in the administration over what to do about it.

The Transportation Department is proposing bigger, easier-to- read warnings in cars. Another proposal is to encourage, but not require, car companies to put in new air bags that would not inflate if sensors indicated a child in the seat.

"We're proposing changes in our safety rules that will maximize the benefits while minimizing the risk of air bags to children," said Transportation Secretary Federico Pena.

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But Sanders claims the warnings are inadequate, since they do not say that even belted children can be killed. And staff members of the National Transportation Safety Board feel proposed measures do not go far enough, sources said.

Consumer groups want mandated improvements.

"We have child-proof medicines. We need to make air bags child proof, too," said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety. "We just need a mandate from the U.S. Department of Transportation."

But a safety group partly sponsored by car manufacturers said all that is needed is better education on how to use existing air bags.

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"We've got current technology air bags that we have to make sure the public understands, and those current technology air bags are saving lives, but there is some special risk to children," said Janet Dewey, of the National Automotive Occupant Protection Campaign.

The best policy for parents is to put children on the back seat and secure them, according to her group.

Whatever regulations the government comes up with, a group of parents of children killed by airbags is asking the Justice Department to investigate whether car manufacturers may have broken the law by failing to warn of the dangers.

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