Destroy the Dummy, Destroy the Child

On October 15, 1995, Robert Sanders lost his seven-year-old daughter, Alison. Alison Sanders was riding in the front passenger seat of a three-week-old 1995 Dodge Caravan in Baltimore, Maryland. The van, traveling at 9.3 miles per hour, struck a car in front of it. The air bag deployed, killing Alison.
Robert Sanders, a business lawyer in Baltimore, was besides himself with grief. He checked himself into a psychiatric hospital for three weeks following the death of his daughter.
Now, Robert Sanders is on a campaign to fix the problem of unsafe air bags. Alison Sanders and more than 90 others, mostly children and women, have been killed by air bags over the past three years.
Sanders is the founder of Parents for Safer Air Bags, a group of parents of children killed by air bags.
Sanders says that some air bags are safer than others. For example, some air bags fire out directly at the occupant. Safer air bags shoot up along the windshield and thus pose less of a risk to the occupant. Many other safety features are also already in vehicles on the road today.
At an April press conference in Washington, D.C., Parents for Safer Air Bags called on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to upgrade its air bag safety tests to prevent front-seat passengers from being killed or seriously injured by poorly designed air bags.
The group petitioned the agency to expand the present tests which currently use only a properly positioned dummy representing a 170-pound male in a 30-mph crash test and do not test for vehicle occupants of other sizes in other positions.
Air bags have saved hundreds of lives and are a major step forward in advancing auto safety -- but they have also killed 96 people, including 54 children under 11 and 25 women shorter than 5-foot-four-inches.
"Ten children have been killed and six others severely injured in Chrysler minivans, yet the company deliberately chose not to test the bags in its family-style minivans with child dummies," Sanders said.
Asked why Chrysler didn't test its air bags using child dummies, Chrysler's senior vehicle safety specialist, Howard Willson, testified recently in a deposition in a defective production lawsuit that "you'd destroy the dummy so there was little purpose in testing something where you knew the result was -- could be catastrophic as far as the dummy was concerned."
During his deposition, Willson said he "can't say it was a surprise" when he heard that air bags were killing children.
Sanders says he was shocked when he heard about Willson's testimony.
"Chrysler marketed its family-style minivans of the 1990s with photographs of a little leaguer sitting in the front seat of a minivan," Sanders said. "Yet we now learn from the testimony of Howard Willson that Chrysler never crash tested any of its minivans with child-sized dummies, because according to Willson, the company knew that the air bag would "destroy" the child-sized dummy. By inference, they understood that the air bag would also destroy the child."
In states in which juries are permitted to impose punitive damages, this testimony presents a serious problem for Chrysler, which faces numerous lawsuits from parents who have lost children to Chrysler air bags.
Many manufacturers have deliberately chosen air bag designs that meet the minimum federal standard but which are dangerous for children and women at low-speed collisions.
Now, the auto companies are lobbying Congress and the Department of Transportation to go slow and not set any firm deadlines for setting a proper air bag safety standard.
In September 1996, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an "urgent" safety recommendation that NHTSA "immediately revise" the air bag performance standard to "establish performance requirements that reflect the actual accident environment."
Despite's NHTSA's announcement that it would propose an upgrade in early 1997, no such proposed rule has been issued.
While some manufacturers have incorporated widely available technology in their air bag designs that address real-world crash conditions, many have not.
According to NHTSA data, eight manufacturers -- Alfa Romeo, BMW, Honda, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Saab and Subaru -- have had no passenger-side air bag deaths or severe injuries. But other companies have installed poorly designed air bags which have resulted in deaths and severe injuries.
To honor the lives of those little ones who have been killed because corporate executives refused to do the right thing, the government must act promptly to require proper testing of these important safety devices. And those corporations responsible for the carnage must be brought to justice.

Russell Mokhiber is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based Corporate Crime Reporter.
Robert Weissman is editor of the Washington, D.C.-based
Multinational Monitor.


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