updated 4/5/2005 12:48:06 PM ET 2005-04-05T16:48:06

Children wearing safety belts who are exposed to older air bags in frontal crashes face a higher risk of serious injury compared with those in vehicles with newer versions of the safety devices, a study released Monday found.

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The study, published in the April edition of the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, reports that children wearing seat belts in the right front seat had a 14.9 percent risk of serious injury when an older air bag was deployed in a crash.

Children in a similar situation exposed to second-generation air bags, or those built after federal regulators amended air bag rules in 1997, had a 9.9 percent risk of serious injury.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recommends all children ages 12 and under be placed in rear seats. But researchers note many children continue to sit in the right front seat of passenger vehicles.

The report evaluated first-generation air bags from 1994-1997 model years while the second-generation devices reviewed were from 1998-2001 model years.

New bags reduced child injuries
Air bags have been credited with saving more than 15,000 lives since the Department of Transportation required all vehicles to have driver’s side air bags or automatic seat belts by 1989 and passenger-side bags soon after.

Automakers initially opposed the rule because of costs and warned the devices could harm people, especially children, because the air bags were deployed with forces that frequently surpassed 100 mph. Deaths peaked in 1997, when 53 people, including 31 children, were killed.

The amended regulations led to the redesign of frontal air bags to reduce the force.

From April 1993 through July 2003, the government estimates 134 children were killed and 30 were seriously injured in crashes where they were not placed in rear-facing child safety seats and the air bag deployed. In most of the fatalities, seat belts were either not worn or misused.

Researchers said most air-bag studies have focused on the reduction of fatality risks for children but have not reviewed how the new designs affected serious injuries.

Lead researcher Kristy Arbogast, a research assistant professor at The Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, said the report shows that technological advances in the new air bags have reduced the injuries to child occupants.

“What we hope to do with this study is to give positive feedback to the auto industry that the direction they’re going in is the right one,” Arbogast said.

She joined safety officials in stressing the back seat remains the best place for children under age 13.

The study, based on insurance claims from State Farm Insurance Co., involved 1,781 children and teenagers between the ages of 3 and 15 who had been wearing seat belts in the right front seat. The youngsters were exposed to deployed air bags in frontal crashes between December 1998 and November 2002.

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