Air bags are killing fewer children than they did five years ago, government data show, and safety experts give most of the credit to parents who are keeping children 12 years old and under out of the front seat. In 1996, passenger-side air bags were in about 22 million vehicles, and they killed 35 children, according to the National Safety Council, a private nonprofit organization. Air-bag use was growing, the council said, and so were fears about more deaths. "We had an impending crisis," said Chuck Hurley, a council spokesman. Every month more than 1 million cars with passenger-side air bags were being put on the road, and the number of child deaths was projected to double annually, he said, "until we were killing several hundred children a year with a federally mandated safety device." But in 2000, even though the number of cars equipped with passenger-side air bags had tripled, the number of children killed by air bags fell to about 18. Some of those deaths are still under investigation and the cause has not been confirmed. A report released by the council on Thursday says that for adults and children together, the rate of air-bag fatalities -- that is, the number of fatalities per million air bags in cars -- is down 60 percent. The number of child deaths per million air bags is down 90 percent.
From 1996 to 2000, 191 people, including 116 children, died in cases in which an air bag was suspected to be the cause. In many cases, the deaths came in low-speed crashes, in which the force of the deploying air bags was the cause. Although engineers assert that the number of lives saved by air bags is far larger than the number killed, and that the severity of injuries has been sharply reduced by air bags, the early deaths caused a backlash against the bags. The force of an air bag can safely restrain many people in a crash, but can injure or kill a child or small adult. Any passenger wearing a seat belt is safer in a crash than one who is not. Some children who were killed were not in belts, but were close to the air bag when it deployed. New studies show that many parents now understand that their children are safest in the rear seat.
In addition, design changes have decreased the explosive force of the bags in newer vehicles. Preliminary studies suggest that the newer bags are just as effective as the older air bags in preventing deaths. A public awareness campaign financed by insurance companies, car makers and companies that make car components spent $37 million to promote the use of seat belts and having children ride in the back seat. Deaths were widely publicized, and several lawsuits led to large damage awards to families of children killed by air bags. Hurley said the campaign would continue.