Federal and auto industry officials suspected as long ago as 1969 that air bags could injure or kill some children and small adults, but the government did not warn the public as it campaigned to win widespread public acceptance of the devices, according to documents spanning more than 20 years of debate over air bags.
For example, in a 1969 research paper by General Motors Corp., the automaker noted that "a small child close to an instrument panel from which an air cushion is deployed may, in our present estimation, be severely injured or even killed."
But it wasn't until December 1991 that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration warned parents that children in infant safety seats should not be placed in front of an air bag. And it wasn't until November 1995 that the agency publicly stated that air bags could cause injuries and death.
In October 1991, after air bags had been road tested for several years, auto executives and NHTSA officials met to evaluate the real-world experience with the devices. At the meeting in Detroit, NHTSA said it was "aware of one-half dozen or so cases in which it is believed that the air bag caused the death of the occupant" in crashes below 10 mph.
But according to a NHTSA memo recounting the meeting, federal and industry safety officials agreed "that the potential for bad press in these few cases could cause a lot of harm to the public's positive perception and receptiveness to air bags."
The public confidence in air bags was growing with reports of lives being saved in severe accidents. Air bags are credited with saving more than 1,100 lives in the past decade, while they are blamed for a relatively small number of fatalities -- 50, including 30 children.
As far back as 1984, NHTSA officials were looking at specific concerns raised by automakers that children 4 years old and younger might be vulnerable to injuries by air bags. In one report on those investigations, the agency concluded that the potential benefits of air bags far outweighed their potential harm to infants and small children.
The agency said in that report that the "theoretical potential" of a small child being injured in an air bag-equipped car "is more than offset by the overall crash protection afforded children by air bags." Besides this report there were countless pieces of correspondence with the agency, technical briefs, research papers and other documentation that indicated that the deployment of air bags could be harmful to small passengers, particularly those unbelted.
Until this year, when news of fatalities caused by air bags became widespread, much of the sparring and debate over the safety of the bags -- and how the regulation should be crafted -- was done behind closed doors. In typical Washington fashion, lobbyists, industry representatives, consumer groups, insurers and the government fought over the reach of the rule.
And as the government struggled to come up with "passive restraint" regulations -- an effort that began in the 1960s -- the safety aspects of the proposed rules became mired in political, economic and marketing battles waged among these same groups.
Consumer groups, in particular, were active in the earliest days, pushing the industry and the government to put a "passive restraint" standard on the books as quickly as possible. "Passive restraints" then included air bags and automatically closing seat belts -- but clearly it was air bags that consumer groups favored.
Yesterday, leaders of the same consumer groups conceded that air bags, which they once promoted as a near-perfect safety device with some drawbacks, needed to be made safer.
The groups, Public Citizen and the Center for Auto Safety, petitioned the government to force automakers to install dual-speed air bags in all new cars and trucks by the fall of 1998.
Dual-speed bags would deploy at high or low speeds, depending on the weight of the person sitting in front of the device. Lower deployment speeds, ordered by sensors placed in the seat, would protect most children in crashes, the consumer advocates said yesterday.
NHTSA officials said they will withhold comment on the proposal until they review it. The agency is reviewing other proposals, which include air bag warning labels, air bag on-off switches and mandating reduced deployment speeds for air bags.
In Toronto last week, U.S., Japanese and European auto safety experts approved a resolution to slow down air bag inflation rates.
"We've never said, and no one has ever said, that there would be no deaths" from air bags, Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen president and a former NHTSA administrator, said yesterday.
"We're not suggesting now that every death is going to be prevented" with dual-speed bags, Claybrook said. "We're suggesting that a large number of those deaths can be prevented," she said.
Sam Kazman, general counsel of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington-based think tank, said, "That's an interesting bit of revisionism on Joan's part." Kazman said Claybrook often touted air bags as being "perfect for little children."
Consumer leaders, including Claybrook, often accused GM and other automakers of using the child-injury argument as a ruse to delay installation of air bags.
For example, Claybrook said on Oct. 2, 1979, that GM's evidence of potential child injury from air bags is "fragmentary and speculative." Even if there were child injuries, "the trade-off in terms of saving thousands of lives clearly outweighs these extraordinary and infrequent risks," Claybrook told the media then.
There was ample reason for Claybrook to suspect that automakers would resist installing air bags. The companies frequently had fought federal efforts to require safety devices such as seat belts, often citing the potential costs of installing those items and the public's supposed unwillingness to pay for them.
The government, at the urging of consumer groups, would push for new auto safety devices. The automakers would say no, while spending huge sums of money to lobby sympathetic, powerful lawmakers such as Rep. John D. Dingell (D-Mich.), who pressed NHTSA to delay the implementation of air bag rules.
The auto industry also benefited from political changes that put Republicans -- opponents of "big government" and federal auto safety mandates -- in the White House.
Claybrook said yesterday that she is well aware of that history and her role in it, but contended that she and other consumer advocates had nothing to be ashamed of.
"Every position I've taken" on the air bag issue "was based on the best information I had at the time," Claybrook said.
She and Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, said the car companies bear the ultimate responsibility for coming up with safer air bags.
"What we're trying to do now is reach out to the automakers. We want a resolution. The ultimate prize' in all of this is a reduction of deaths and injuries," Claybrook said. CAPTION: Transportation Department documents reveal automakers' and government's concern over the negative impact news of air bag-related deaths would have. CAPTION: Consumer advocates say that lower deployment speeds, determined by sensors placed in the seat, would protect most children in crashes.