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EVERY ENGINEER IS FAMILIAR WITH the Law of Unintended Consequences, the principle that almost any technological improvement will create unforeseen problems of its own. The automobile has been a fruitful source of unintended consequences, from the days when it was predicted to rid the country of drunken horsemen. More ominously, it now seems that air bags, intended to save lives, may in fact be dangerous, especially to children. A study this fall by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration concluded that air bags increase the fatality risk to children in the front passenger seat by 30 percent. Carmakers last week were planning to send warning letters to the owners of some 15 million cars about the danger air bags pose to children.

Safety experts have known for years that inflatable restraints, leaping out of the dashboard at speeds of up to 200 miles an hour, can deal punishing or even lethal blows to people who contact them while they are still inflating. Since the government began phasing in an air-bag requirement in 1993, 28 children have been killed by the devices, as have 19 adults, almost all of them women. But until recently, it seemed that the children who were killed weren't properly seated in the first place. Either they weren't wearing seat belts, or they were infants who should never have been in the front seat at all (even strapped into a rear-facing infant seat). But last month federal officials reported that for the first time, a child who was seated and belted in the front passenger seat was killed by an air bag--5-year-old Frances Ambrose of Nashville, Tenn., whose mother walked away from an otherwise minor fender bender. And the NHTSA is investigating a 1994 accident in which an eight-month-pregnant woman survived a low-speed crash--but lost her baby, ap- parently from the impact of the air bag.

Carmakers had foreseen just such accidents in warning about the dangers of air bags as long ago as 1969. But the industry always opposed safety regulations that might cost money--at least until the late 1980s, when air bags suddenly emerged as a selling point. More tellingly, auto-safety consultant Peter Dill thinks safety advocates share some of the responsibility for overlooking the risk to children in their zeal to make air bags mandatory. ""Everyone--the industry, the NHTSA, the Naderites--knew in the 1970s that air bags could kill people, especially children,'' Dill says.

Car manufacturers argue that part of the problem lies with the regulations, which call for protecting an unbelted, 168-pound man in a 30-mile-an-hour crash. That requires the bag to inflate at high pressure. But passengers wearing seat belts don't require such powerful protection, and in the 12 years since the standard was originally drafted, seat-belt usage has increased from under 20 percent to nearly 70 percent. So the auto industry is seeking permission to make bags that will inflate with less oomph. Also, regulations now require air bags to deploy in crashes at as little as 15 miles per hour; the industry would like to see that figure raised, perhaps to 25. Farther down the road are various permutations of ""smart bags'' that could deploy at different velocities, depending on the weight of the passenger. In 1998 Mercedes-Benz models, the air bag will deactivate if a baby seat is placed in the passenger seat.

In the meantime, the 40-odd deaths that were caused by air bags must be weighed against some 1,500 lives that have been saved by them. Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, estimates that more than 3,000 fetuses are killed in car crashes each year--and the 1994 case is the first one suspected to have been caused by an air bag. Death by unintended consequences is always especially poignant and newsworthy. But society would do better to focus on the lives intentionally saved.

PHOTO (COLOR): Crash dummies: Bags built with grown men in mind

Air bags can be hazardous for children riding in the front seats of cars. It's safer to put kids in the back and strap them in with a seat belt. Some of the risks:

Children who are less than 59 inches tall may be hit in the head by airbags inflating at 200 miles an hour.

Very small children in a rear-facing safety seat in the front may be slammed face-first into the backrest.

Some safety advocates believe the bags' impact may harm fetuses, but evidence is inconclusive. Bags may protect expectant mothers.

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