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What's the scoop?

Safety devices are intended to save lives.

But what should be done when a device that saves some people proves dangerous for others?

That is the big question facing U.S. safety officials and the companies that make automobiles. Their concern is air bags: safety devices installed in cars to prevent injury to passengers in a crash. It turns out that an air bag itself poses a safety risk for children and small adults riding in the front seat.

Air bags _ now required in all new cars sold in the United States _ have been credited with saving 1,800 lives in the past 10 years. But the bags also have killed 38 children and 24 adults because they inflate so powerfully and quickly in a car wreck.

All last week, the National Transportation Safety Board held hearings in Washington, D.C., to gather information about air bags _ and about the federal government's decision to allow carmakers to lower the force of air bags by up to 35 percent.

The federal safety officials are trying to find out how air bags can be redesigned to be safer for both small and large passengers in cars. They want to know if changes in air bag design could reduce the 35,000 deaths that occur in U.S. car wrecks each year.

How they work

Air bags are designed to inflate when an automobile crashes into another car or object. They are packed in the steering wheel or inside the dashboard. When a crash occurs, they fill the front seat like a giant balloon. The balloon keeps people from being thrown violently into the dashboard or the glass windshield.

The problem, safety experts said last week, is that the air bags inflate at up to 200 miles per hour. Although a larger passenger can absorb the shock, that much force slamming into a child or small adult can cause serious injuries, or death.

Reducing the force seems logical, but a reduction may increase the crash injury risk for larger passengers as it reduces air bag injury risks to smaller ones.

Crash-test dummies

Many of the experts talking about air bags last week said air bag safety could not be discussed without also discussing seat belt safety.

They said one reason existing air bags are so powerful is that they were designed to protect adult-size crash-test dummies that were not belted in. Since seat belt use is required by law in every state but New Hampshire, the experts said air bags should be designed to work together with seat belts.

Twenty-four of the children killed by air bags were not wearing seat belts.

The long-term goal for air bag safety, experts said, should be to develop "smart" bags that could sense the size and position of each passenger and adjust the speed at which the bag opens.

Such bags are only now being developed _ and may be very expensive for people buying cars.

Until "smart" air bags exist, the advice from safety experts is this:

All kids younger than 12 should ride belted in the back seat.

Activities

1. Sometimes government rulemakers have to weigh the different needs of different groups of people. Stage a debate on how government rules on air bags should be written. Should they be changed when the bags have saved so many lives _ and many of the injured weren't wearing seat belts?

2. Look through today's newspaper for other stories that involve safety. Pick one story and read it closely. Then write answers to these questions: What is the safety issue? How many people does it affect? Is there a rule or law to control it? Is the rule okay as is, or could it be improved?

3. Every time a safety device is added to a product, it increases the cost. Look through today's paper for a product being advertised. List what safety features or protections are included in the cost of the product (stretch your thinking _ be sure to remember packaging). Are all the safety features worth paying extra money?

4. Scan the automobile display ads in today's newspaper. Do any promote safety features to sell cars? Design an auto ad that would sell a car's safety as well as its other features.

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