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KEEP KIDS SAFE - IN THE BACK SEAT

Air bags have saved an estimated 1,500 lives since their introduction in large numbers in the mid-1980s - which is why they are now available on 50 million cars and trucks.

But these safety devices can also kill and maim, claiming the lives of at least 19 children over the past 11 years.That's what Utahns discovered to their horror last year after 5-year-old Jordan West died when the car in which he was riding hit a concrete planter box in the parking lot of a North Salt Lake restaurant and the vehicle's air bag inflated, breaking his neck.

This sad situation is why a coalition of safety officials, automakers and insurers unveiled a $10 million campaign this week designed to end the carnage.

Much of the money will be spent on an education campaign to encourage proper use of seat belts and shoulder harnesses in conjunction with air bags.

Fine. But there are sharp limits to what education campaigns can accomplish. Despite more than two decades of "buckle up for safety" programs, more than 30 per cent of people in cars still don't wear seat belts and 40 per cent of American parents still don't buckle up their young children in cars. In Utah, only about 50 per cent of all motorists regularly use their seat belts.

That's why all 50 states ought to let law enforcement officers pull over and ticket drivers if children in their vehicles are not wearing seat belts. Currently, only 11 states allow this. Moreover, Detroit needs to look for ways to make air bags safer for passengers of all ages.

There is much debate over the appropriate triggering speed - the impact force that causes deployment of air bags. But on at least two key points there is widespread agreement:

First, all occupants of vehicles would be safer if they used seat belts and shoulder harnesses in connection with air bags.

Second, infants and small children should never be placed directly in front of an air bag. Instead, the safest place for youngsters is properly belted and in the back seat.

On the whole, air bags have been outstandingly successful safety devices. The challenge now for industry, government and parents alike is to improve on that record - particularly where children are concerned. It can be done.