Federal regulators warned yesterday that side air bags can kill or seriously injure children under 12 and urged manufacturers installing the devices in rear seats to let drivers decide whether they want them activated.
Most auto manufacturers reacted coolly to the advisory from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, saying side air bags used in conjunction with age-appropriate restraints significantly enhance safety.
BMW allows customers to tell dealers whether they want rear seat air bags activated, but a Mercedes spokesman said the company has no plans to follow suit.
"We don't believe it's in the consumer's best interests," said Mercedes spokesman Stuart Schorr.
About 7,500 people in the United States each year die from side-impact crashes, and a growing number of auto manufacturers are installing side air bags as standard or optional equipment to enhance safety.
There have been no deaths or serious injuries attributed to side air bags. By contrast, front air bags have been blamed for at least 145 deaths since 1990.
In those cases, the impact of the bag inflating caused serious injuries. Most of the victims were children and short people, many of whom were not wearing seat belts.
Federal officials said more than 2.4 million vehicles with front-seat side air bags are in use, but fewer than 20,000 have rear-seat air bags. Most manufacturers are installing front-seat side air bags, but only Mercedes, Audi, BMW and Rolls Royce are putting them in the rear seat.
In its consumer advisory, the traffic safety administration warned that side air bags can kill or seriously injure a child whose head, neck or chest is in close proximity to the air bag at the time of deployment.
Since children under 12 are supposed to be traveling in rear seats at all times, the advisory urged car manufacturers to deactivate rear side air bags before shipping vehicles to dealers.
"Purchasers who want such air bags activated, after being advised of the potential risk to out-of-position children, should be able to have them switched on by their dealers," the advisory said.
The agency also urged manufacturers to allow owners of vehicles with rear side air bags to bring them back to dealers to have them deactivated if the vehicle is likely to be carrying children.
Pub Date: 10/15/99