Evolution of a warning

The dangers posed by air bags were well documented by the time their widespread use began in the late 1980s and early '90s. It was the general public that remained in the dark.

It could have been different. From the outset auto manufacturers and government regulators knew that small women and children were particularly susceptible to injury from air bags. In fact, one of the first vehicles ever to contain the safety device carried an explicit warning of the dangers.

A motion filed in a Tennessee lawsuit involving the death of a 5-year-old girl killed by an air bag in a low-speed accident points out that Ford installed passenger air bags in a test fleet of 1,000 Mercury Montereys in 1972. A label placed on the dashboard of these vehicles included the following warning: The right front seat should be used only by persons who are more than 5 feet tall and are in sound health. Smaller persons and those who are aged or infirm should be seated and belted in the rear seat.

The owner's manual went even further, warning parents, "Small children should never be allowed to occupy the front passenger compartment, whether sitting or standing, because the force of the air bag may impose dangerously high loads on them."

Twenty years later, with the problem still unsolved, federal regulators and auto manufacturers turned their backs on such explicit warnings.

In 1992, at a time when the general public mistakenly pictured air bags as a sort of magic pillow, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association -- which at the time represented Ford, General Motors and Chrysler -- petitioned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to mandate uniform warning labels. The Big Three reasoned that "different labels from the various manufacturers may result in a potentially confusing variety of label formats and instructions."

When NHTSA decided on the warning that would appear on 1994 model vehicles with passenger-side air bags, it contained none of the explicit cautions offered by Ford two decades earlier. Even the automakers complained the government's warning was too weak. Chrysler requested a stronger warning (although its suggested warning stopped short of telling people that air bags could kill children). Government regulators chose to go with their original, watered-down warning.

In a New York case last year involving a 5-year-old boy killed by an air bag in a low-speed crash, Chrysler argued that it was prohibited from supplementing the government-mandated warning on the sun visor with additional warnings. Although a jury eventually decided that Chrysler's air bags were designed to deploy at unreasonably low speeds and found the company liable, the judge agreed with the company's arguments regarding warnings and threw out that portion of the case.

Manhattan U.S. District Court Judge Jed Rakoff ruled that Chrysler was bound by NHTSA instructions regarding warnings and could not go beyond what the agency mandated. For Chrysler to have "added something that potentially might confuse in the form of another warning would, if anything, raise the specter of creating liability," Rakoff decided.

That decision, however, is being appealed. According to federal regulators, there was nothing prohibiting automakers from posting additional warnings on their own.

Responding to a request for information from Parents for Safer Air Bags -- which filed a brief in the case -- NHTSA chief counsel Frank Seales wrote in a November 1998 letter: "You asked whether this final rule precluded automobile manufacturers from placing air-bag information elsewhere in the vehicle (i.e., other than on the sun visor) with a text different than that of the sun-visor label. The answer is no."

In fact, other manufacturers did post stronger warnings. Volvo placed a warning with additional information on the dash; Saab placed safety cards with stronger warnings in front-door and seat-back pockets.

Certainly there was nothing precluding automakers from spelling out air-bag dangers in their owner's manuals. But in sworn deposition testimony for a Texas case (which was settled out of court), Chrysler safety engineer Howard Willson, under questioning from attorney Larry Boyd, stated that the maker of this country's most popular minivans didn't focus air-bag warnings on children at all.

Boyd: Did Chrysler, prior to 1997, ever tell parents that children 12 and under should always be seated in the rear seat?

Willson: We did not focus on that age. We did indicate that children are better restrained and safer in the rear seat.

Boyd: In fact, when it came to dealing with the passenger-side air bag, you didn't really focus on children in terms of warnings back in '94, '95, true?

Willson: That's true, with the exception of a child in the rear-facing child restraint. The infant, I should say, in the rear-facing child restraint.

Boyd: So that the testimony's clear, other than the rear-facing-infant-seat problem, Chrysler chose not to or did not, `for` whatever reason, focus on children in terms of its warnings in the owner's manual with regard to a '94, '95 Chrysler minivan?

Willson: True.

Chrysler wasn't the only manufacturer to downplay the hazards. It didn't take long for the consequences to begin showing up. With passenger-side air bags finding their way into many cars by 1993, the deaths quickly mounted.

By October 1995, 14 children had been killed by air bags in low-speed collisions. The National Transportation Safety Board raised a red flag, and the media for the first time began reporting that air bags appeared to be killing kids.

In July 1996, Parents for Safer Air Bags petitioned NHTSA to mandate stronger warnings. Later that year, NHTSA ordered new warning labels be installed effective Feb. 25, 1997. The new labels included this notification: Children 12 and under can be killed by the air bag. By the time the warning appeared, 38 children had been killed by air bags.