DETROIT-Concern for child safety is prompting a fresh look at passenger-side airbags, which are due to become mandatory in 1997-model-year vehicles. A trade group representing U.S. automakers has suggested that a dashboard on-off switch be installed for use when a child is riding in a rear-facing safety seat.
In October 1993, Transportation Secretary Federico Pe¤a warned about the potential danger of a rapidly inflating airbag to a child in a front-seat safety seat.
``We don't want (airbags) to get a bad name,'' said Vann Wilber of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, which proposed the on-off switch. ``Our manufacturers are very anxious to get this settled.''
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration plans to begin reviewing the request next month, said Barry Felrice, the agency's associate administrator for rule-making.
``Whatever we need to do, we need to do it quickly,'' he said.
No children in safety seats have been reported injured by an airbag, but laboratory tests have indicated the potential danger.
Federal law requires that all cars have standard driver- and passenger-side airbags by 1997, followed in 1998 by all light trucks. The trade group's proposal would affect only passenger-side bags.
The president of a research group funded by the insurance industry expressed concern that a driver could remove a child seat then forget to reset the airbag to deploy.
``Invariably, if given the opportunity, people will do the wrong thing,'' said Brian O'Neill, head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
With airbags multiplying like rabbits, one supplier said future generations of the device will protect against side impacts, eventually will be installed in the back seat-and will be a whole lot smarter, too.
Airbag supplier Morton International Inc. is toying with the idea of airbags for motorcycles, or even airplanes, said Jim Erickson, manager of advanced development programs for Morton Automotive Safety Products.
Some of today's airbags deploy with so much force, they've been accused of contributing to injuries. The next step is to come up with ``smart'' airbags that deploy with full force-literally, explosive force-when needed, or relatively more gently in less-severe vehicle collisions.
``Today's systems are really pretty rudimentary,'' Mr. Erickson said at the annual World Traffic Safety Symposium held recently in New York in conjuction with the New York International Automobile Show.
Morton has gone so far as to put a trademark on the term ``smart'' airbag. Competitor TRW Inc. calls them ``tailorable.''
A smart airbag could moderate its response in relation to crash severity, the number of occupants in the car, and whether they're wearing seat belts, Mr. Erickson said.
Seat position, vehicle speed, and even how much the occupant weighs need to be considered, TRW said in another session.
Some day, there might be so many airbags in a car, a ``smart'' system will be needed to relieve the air pressure inside the passenger compartment, in case they all go off at once, Mr. Erickson said.
Several automakers are considering ``smarter'' systems. BMW has a system that keeps the passenger airbag from going off if there's no one in that seat. It's being introduced beginning with May production, except for the 7 series, which will be replaced this fall, a BMW spokesman said.
And Mercedes-Benz has an airbag system that can tell whether the passengers have their seat belts fastened. It adjusts its threshold for deployment accordingly.
This story is based on reports from the Associated Press and Automotive News