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Best solution: better air bags

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The latest proposal to curb deaths caused by air bags - allowing some motorists to have on-off air bag switches installed - is a stop-gap measure that misses the mark. What the public really needs is a better air bag.

That would be the best way to cut down on the number of accidental deaths caused by air bags (they have been blamed for killing 49 children and 38 adults since 1990.)As an intermediate step, the on-off switch plan is flawed. Under the Clinton administration's guidelines federal regulators would let only those people who fall into a high risk category install them. Those include adults who must put children in the front seat because they have large families or are in a car pool; short drivers who cannot sit far enough from the air bag; and people with medical conditions who would be adversely affected by the deployment of an air bag.

Before a switch can be installed the applicant must read various brochures, receive education from the Transportation Department on the pros and cons of air bags and sign an agreement under the penalty of perjury that he or she fits into at least one of the high-risk categories.

On-off switches should be made available to all. Most drivers have situations where they wind up having children in both the front and back seats, taking them to a school function, soccer game etc. A car or van fills one function one day and quite a different one the next day.

The individual driver should have the freedom to decide whether an on-off switch is installed and whether it's on or off. Limiting the devices to a select group doesn't make sense.

What does make sense is for the federal government and automakers to work together to make air bags safer for children and adults. Auto industry officials say they're capable of putting less powerful air bags in cars and manufacturing "smart" air bags that adjust the power of deployment to the weight of the passenger. These types of improvements should be instituted immediately.

In the meantime, educating drivers about the safety advantages of putting children in car seats in the back seat and belting them in is vital.

It's better to have air bags than not to have them. Despite the deaths, they have been credited by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration for saving 2,600 lives.

Those figures could be improved a lot more by better air bags than by a questionable on-off switch.