First of two articles

After a 30-year battle to require installation of air bags in every new car and truck sold in this country, the technology intended to protect passengers and drivers in the severest accidents has suffered the equivalent of a head-on collision.

In the next few weeks the U.S. government is expected to give vehicle owners the option of deactivating their air bags, an acknowledgment that the long-promoted safety device is itself a potential menace. Air bags already have been installed in 60 million American cars and will be required features on all new U.S. autos beginning this fall.

The government's decision to let consumers decide whether to risk air bag injuries follows three decades of painful lessons learned at the expense of American motorists.

For years, as the toll of air bag deaths and injuries climbed, no action was taken, no fixes made, no warnings issued -- a record that calls into question not only the good faith efforts of safety advocates and carmakers but also the government's competence as a guardian of public safety.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) contends that air bags have saved 1,900 lives over the past 11 years. But there is a growing consensus that the device approved by safety regulators also is badly flawed. Deploying at speeds of up to 200 mph, the bags have inflicted injury and death o n the most vulnerable drivers and passengers, even in extremely low-speed crashes.

Many of the 39 children whose deaths the NHTSA attributes to air bag deployments died in crashes of less than 15 mph; air bag accidents also have killed 27 adults, mostly small women or frail and elderly victims, federal statistics show. Moreover, the NHTSA recorded more than 300,000 air bag-related injuries in 1995 alone. The agency says 98 percent of those injuries were minor, and that the afflicted drivers and passengers often would have sustained more serious injuries without air bag protection.

Motorists now face a dilemma. They may rely on air bags, despite the grim conclusion of safety experts that the bags now kill more children under 12 than they save and pose substantial risks to certain drivers. Or, as more than 20,000 consumers already have requested, they can spend up to $300 to have the bags disconnected while federal regulators ponder what further actions to take.

The NHTSA is considering two options: giving motorists the right to install on-off switches, or allowing dealers and mechanics to cut the wires. Some critics want Congress to go further by repealing the safety standard that made air bags mandatory, a measure adopted only after a bitter fight between consumer groups and automakers.

This two-part account, drawn from thousands of pages of industry and government documents and dozens of interviews, details how consumer advocates, automakers and federal regulators either ignored or minimized evidence of air bag dangers. It is a saga that reflects the best and worst of consumer activism in America and has led to a paradox: New car buyers must purchase automobiles with air bags, which are a legally required accessory, but also must decide for themselves whether the safety feature is threatening enough to disconnect.

"There was no institutional player in the 30-year saga that built a reputation for providing sound, objective information and advice," said John D. Graham, a Harvard University School of Public Health professor who has specialized in auto safety. "Government regulators, safety advocates and auto company engineers never learned to cooperate to find out the truth about the air bag's effectiveness. . . . There were only advocates, no truth seekers."

Consumer groups and government regulators settled for little real-world testing before mass production began in the late 1980s. As a result, the typical air bag was built to protect a 165-pound male, rather than accommodate the broad physical range of drivers and passengers.

"NHTSA and the {auto} industry have been aware of the air bag problem for 25 years," Jim Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said earlier this year. "Although they have been working to develop better air bag systems for many years, few vehicles incorporate that technology today." In Search of a Solution

Air bag technology, which initially had been developed as a potential safety system for Apollo astronauts, was first cited by the NHTSA as an option for automobiles in 1969. Goaded by Ralph Nader's expose, "Unsafe at Any Speed," Congress had authorized the agency to set car safety standards.

But whether air bags were the right solution to an increasing number of highway fatalities, which would peak in 1972 at more than 54,000, was hotly debated among safety advocates and within the auto industry. General Motors even warned that its tests on pigs indicated small children could be "severely injured or even killed" if they were too close to the dashboard when a bag deployed.

Air bag proponents were undeterred. They were led by Joan Claybrook, a congressional staffer who eventually headed the Nader consumer group Public Citizen. Claybrook became a convert, she recalled in an interview, when a manufacturer told her about "this unbelievable new invention" soon dubbed "the people saver."

"The problem was that only 10 percent of the public wore seat belts. We were looking for something that was automatic {and} that didn't depend on human behavior," Claybrook said.

"Air bags were touted as the greatest thing since sliced bread," said Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "We were going to save zillions of lives."

With air bag advocates cast as public crusaders by a largely sympathetic press, Detroit automakers often were depicted as villains. But air bags had some early believers among the auto captains -- until test results convinced them the technology flawed and production costs became an overriding issue.

Edward Cole, General Motors president from 1967 to 1974, championed a plan to test air bags in 150,000 cars. But the plan was downsized to about 12,000 vehicles after the 1973 oil crisis sent gasoline prices sky high and made consumers less willing to spend money on safety devices.

Henry Ford II authorized technical work on air bag development. But Ford was humiliated by an air bag demonstration held at the U.S. Transportation Department in August 1969. A team of Ford Motor Co. engineers had come to Washington to show off their device. But as Claybrook, who witnessed the event, recalled, "they pushed the bottom and the air bag didn't inflate. Of course, that was the news story."

When Ford read about it in the next day's newspapers, Claybrook added, "he went berserk and then killed the air bag program. He said he didn't want any Rube Goldberg device in his car." Lee Iacocca, then Ford's president, shifted the company focus to the ill-fated "interlock seat belt," a device that met massive consumer resistance because drivers had to buckle up before their cars would start.

In November 1970, over opposition from carmakers, the NHTSA required automatic crash protection for all passenger cars by July 1973. Automakers had the option of installing either automatic belts or air bags as passive restraints. Detroit's aggrieved car magnates turned to the courts, to Congress and even to the White House in a campaign to delay the requirement, which would cost billions of dollars.

In April 1971, Henry Ford II and Iacocca met secretly with President Richard Nixon and urged him to delay the 1973 deadline. A sympathetic Nixon pressured his transportation secretary, John Volpe, and the NHTSA extended the deadline another two years.

Concern about the air bag threat to unbelted children surfaced again in 1974, when Volvo released the gruesome results of crash tests conducted in Gothenburg, Sweden. Twenty-four baby pigs, picked to replicate the size and weight of children aged 3 to 6, were anesthetized and strapped upright four to six inches from air bags in cars that then accelerated to 17 mph before collision. Only three of 24 pigs escaped death or serious injury. Most died quickly from badly damaged lungs and hearts.

Distribution of the Volvo study initially was limited to European auto engineers, although the results soon filtered into the air bag debate in the United States.

Yet public attention here was focused on the annoying interlock seat belt, which Congress ultimately vetoed. The seat belt rebellion convinced then-Transportation Secretary William Coleman that caution was necessary in promoting car safety. In 1976 he proposed a "demonstration program" to test air bags on 400,000 cars. But Coleman's tenure was nearly at an end, and with it his cautious approach. Claybrook's Push

With President Jimmy Carter's arrival in the White House in 1977, the push for air bags abruptly accelerated with a single appointment. Claybrook was named to head the NHTSA, and one of her first actions was to cancel Coleman's demonstration plan and press for mandatory air bags.

She worked fast. By June of that year a rule was in place giving manufacturers until the 1984 models to install "passive restraint protection" in all passenger cars.

Claybrook's critics would later denounce the regulation as a critical error that effectively postponed serious real-world testing of air bags for a decade.

"In medical terms, it was like introducing a new vaccine into the market place with no clinical trial experiment with humans," Graham, the Harvard professor, said. "That meant the air bag became an all or nothing experiment with the American driver as a guinea pig."

As the regulation took effect, Claybrook's critics charge, evidence gathered -- and initially kept confidential -- by her own agency showed that the device had an unexpected potential to kill those it was intended to protect. A NHTSA study completed in 1976 by Charles J. Kahane, an agency statistician, and based on research into four deaths potentially linked to air bags, found "a striking contrast between actual and predicted experience" with the device.

The study concluded "the field data do not support the NHTSA's calculations" that air bags would reduce frontal crash fatalities by 55 percent." Kahane went so far as to assert that "the high incidence of fatalities may be suggestive that the air bag is totally ineffective in fatality reduction."

Sam Kazman, then legal counsel at the Pacific Legal Foundation, an opponent of air bag regulations, first learned of the report in July 1978. The NHTSA at first refused to make it public, but that September the agency released the document along with a rebuttal saying Kahane's analysis was based on "grossly inadequate field data."

The NHTSA nonetheless lowered its estimate of air bag effectiveness in reducing head-on crash fatalities from 55 percent to 45 percent. Even that estimate would prove an exaggeration by the time air bags were more thoroughly tested in the early 1990s. Last August, Kahane -- who today is one of the NHTSA's chief accident analysts -- issued another report stating that the device had lowered the death toll in such crashes only around 30 percent.

Claybrook, in a recent letter to The Washington Post, said she had been unaware of Kahane's 1976 report until shortly before its 1978 release and never withheld any information about air bag deaths.

Claybrook said she recalled only that the auto industry distributed "a little poop sheet" in the late 1970s about air bag dangers for out-of-position children. The NHTSA's own investigation of crashes, she added, had concluded that "air bags worked extremely well." Advocates vs. Automakers

Dan Murray, a former GM safety expert, has a different recollection of the air bag discussions during Claybrook's NHTSA stint. He said he warned NHTSA officials that air bags could be fatal to children.

At a 1980 safety conference in Lancaster, Pa., Murray said in an interview, he and other GM engineers detailed the results of additional experiments on dummies strapped into test sleds and GM accident investigations. The company concluded that air bags "considerably increased the peril to children who were unrestrained," he said.

"Our position was that GM would not make a decision that would put children in peril in the interest of reducing the peril to adults," Murray said.

But safety advocates, as well as many NHTSA executives, believed the information was "manufactured" by the car companies to avoid air bag installation costs, he said.

Murray recalled one tense back-room session in which Claybrook berated auto company representatives. "You bastards are simply dragging your feet. We're going to force you to put air bags in cars," Claybrook shouted at them, according to Murray.

Claybrook denied making such remarks or even attending the conference. "I can't imagine I'd say something like that," she added.

Cost, of course, was a huge consideration for the automakers. Some estimates put the price of air bags at $3,000 per car, Murray said. Soaring gas prices caused Americans to turn increasingly to cheaper cars that had no air bags. Detroit, eager to delay mandatory air bags, argued that "safety doesn't sell."

Claybrook left the NHTSA in January 1981, and the new conservative administration of President Ronald Reagan embraced a different, less activist philosophy of the government's role in auto safety. Only a ruling from the U.S. Supreme Court prevented the rescission of Claybrook's mandatory air bag rule. Under a compromise engineered in 1984 by then-Transportation Secretary, Elizabeth Dole, auto companies promoted mandatory state seat belt laws even as they began phasing in the required air bags.

The automakers also were responding to a shift in the public mood. Safety began to sell. At a May 1988 press conference, Iacocca, then head of a failing Chrysler Motor Co., dramatically denied that "you can't teach an old dog new tricks." The auto chief who had scuttled Ford's experimental program had discovered "new technology" that had made him an avowed air bag "believer."

Any lingering concerns about the safety of air bags for children faded away. Raising Concerns

In late 1991 Congress acted to end the air bag war once and for all. It passed a law making air bags standard equipment in all passenger car by the fall of 1997 and in all light trucks by the fall of 1998. Nader and Claybrook celebrated -- although their victory would soon be clouded.

In early October 1991, even as Congress debated mandatory air bag legislation, experts from the NHTSA's "Air Bag Technology Review Group" conducted an unpublicized tour of the three big auto manufacturers.

The results of their trip were set forth in a confidential report dubbed the Jacobus Memorandum after its main author, John Jacobus, a NHTSA mechanical engineer.

Now a public document, the Oct. 21, 1991, memorandum makes fascinating reading. The NHTSA was alarmed about "a half dozen or so cases" of deaths in slow-speed accidents possibly linked to air bags, including two short women killed while wearing their seat belts.

"In these accidents the air bag punch-out' forces caused a ruptured aorta, rib fractures, severe myocardial contusions, etc.," Jacobus reported in an accompanying letter to L. Robert Shelton III, director of the NHTSA's Office of Regulatory Analysis.

With millions of cars equipped with air bags by that time, the NHTSA was anxious to know what the automakers were discovering from their accident reports. The response was mixed. Chrysler and Ford told the NHTSA they were satisfied with air bag results so far; Ford asserted that its bags were "safe, reliable and effective." Neither planned any major design changes.

But GM officials were disturbed. GM had continued testing on pigs, dummies and cadavers and was extremely concerned about the "burst out force" from inflating bags.

"GM believes that passengers and even small female drivers can get spinal cord injuries from air bag deployment effects," Jacobus told Shelton in the memo. GM predicted that 200 people a year might die from air bag-inflicted injuries once they were installed in the 100 million-plus vehicles on U.S. highways, according to NHTSA documents.

Yet GM assured the NHTSA that it was rushing to meet the agency's 1997 and 1998 deadlines. Therefore, the Jacobus memo said, "major air bag redesigns were not possible." The NHTSA and the auto companies initially agreed to keep secret GM's finding to avoid setting off a public panic, NHTSA documents indicate.

"All the manufacturers agreed with NHTSA's concern that the potential for bad press on these few cases could cause a lot of harm to the public's positive perception and receptiveness to air bags," Jacobus reported to Shelton.

Nothing was said to the public about the risks, either by the big three auto companies or the federal agency charged with regulating them. Not until early 1992, after repeated requests for disclosure of the report, did the Jacobus memo come to light -- after extensive GM clarifications because of concern that the initial draft could "mislead the public." Tomorrow: The death toll mounts The NHTSA maintains a toll-free hot line (1-800-424-9393) to collect information on air bags and child safety. The agency's Web site is CAPTION: AIR BAG HISTORY August 1952: John W. Hetrick files for a patent on a "Safety Cushion Assembly for Automo-tive Vehicles," the first air bag. November 1965: Ralph Nader (right) publishes "Unsafe at Any Speed" launching a campaign for fed-eral regulation of auto makers. January 1966: Carl Clark of Baltimore's Martin Company displays a sketch of a "safety car" at a Des Moines, Iowa conference that includes driver and passenger air bags. He also warns of dangers air bags could pose to children. August 1966: Congress passes legislation giving the government the power to regulate the auto industry and set minimum safety standards. February 1967: National Highway Traffic Safety Admini-stration requires seat belts in cars for first time by Jan. 1, 1968. 1969: General Motors warns that a small child standing close to a car's instrument panel could be "severely injured or even killed." November 1970: NHTSA requires automatic crash protection for all passenger cars by July 1973. April 1971: Chrysler and Ford file law-suit challenging NHTSA requirement for automatic crash protection devices. Meanwhile, Henry Ford II (below, left) and Ford President Lee Iacocca (right) meet secretly with President Nixon to press for repeal of crash protection regulations which are delayed until August 1975. January 1973: General Motors begins buying 100,000 air bags but actually installs them in only about 12,000 cars from 1974-76. 1974: Volvo issues a report on air bag dangers to unbelted children based on tests using baby pigs. Only three of 24 pigs escaped death or serious injury. October 1974: President Ford signs a bill outlaw-ing NHTSA requirement for interlock seat belts. December 1976: Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, Jr. announces a plan to test air bags on 500,000 cars starting in 1978. March 1977: President Carter's Transportation Secretary Brock Adams, pressed by NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook, suspends Coleman's test plan and four months later, reinstates requirements for air bags or automatic seat belts by September 1981. January 1978: Sam Kazman, Pacific Legal Foundation's legal counsel, files a lawsuit challenging mandatory air bag and seat belt use. January-November 1981: Reagan Administration, through NHTSA, rescinds all air bag and auto-matic seat belt requirements. July 1984: Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole reinstates air bag or automatic seat belt requirements as of September 1986 under a plan that encourages states to pass mandatory seat belts law. March 1987: Ford, realizing safety features are selling, announces plan to install air bags in three million cars by 1992. Chrysler and GM follow the next year. October 1991: NHTSA's Air Bag Technology review group meets with GM, Ford and Chrysler engineers to discuss death of half a dozen motorists in low-speed crashes from air bag deployments. Its findings are not made public. December 1991: President Bush signs legislation requiring passenger cars to have driver-side air bags by September 1997. April 1993: Diana Zhang, 6, of Ohio becomes first child on an official list of air bag fatalities. August 1996: NHTSA proposes new air bag warnings, expanded use of cutoff switches and accelerated promotion of "smart" air bags. November 1996: NHTSA issues a new rule requiring warning labels, allowing the depowering of air bags and introducing "smart" air bags by 1999. CAPTION: HOW AIR BAGS INFLATE Although air bag inflation seems instantaneous, a complex series of events takes place between impact and deployment of the air bag. Upon impact equivalent to a hitting a wall at 8 to 14 mph, sensors send an electrical current to the air bag mechanism: 1. Electrical current flows to igniter, heating it until surrounding material catches fire. 2. Igniter canister blows open, causing booster material to burn. 3. Hot gas from booster flows into container of sodium azide pellets. 4. Pellets burn, giving off nitrogen gas. 5. Gas flows through series of screens that trap chunks and inflates bag. 6. Bag bursts through thin cover. Entire process takes only 1/20th of a second. CRASH FATALITIES IN THOUSANDS 1966: 50,894 1972: 54,589 1995: 41,798 SOURCES: National Center for Health Statistics, Fatal Accident Reporting System CAPTION: The deployed air bag in the accident that killed Eduardo Cabrera, 5, of Nashua, N.H., last September. CAPTION: Air bag testing: Sequential photos show how air bags inflate to cushion a driver. CAPTION: Lack of objectivity: "There were only advocates, no truth seekers," says John D. Graham of Harvard. CAPTION: Air bag leader: Joan Claybrook, former head of NHTSA, was a stronger backer of air bags. CAPTION: Coleman CAPTION: Adams