September 7, 2001 - What number of dead children does the federal government consider acceptable?

In May, the Consumer Product Safety Commission and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced the recall of 3.4 million combination infant carriers/car seats that had injured 97 children. (It had recalled nine baby products since 1997, after a reported 530 injuries.) Later that month, it announced the recall of 4,300 changing tables because some were not properly assembled and could come apart, as well as 4,100 child rockers. In June, the Commission announced the recall of 190,000 backyard swings to repair seats that can fall off, causing children to fall to the ground.

Last month, Congress defeated the nomination of President Bush's nominee for chairman of the Commission, on the ground that she showed insufficient zeal for federal regulation of baby walkers, baby bathtubs, and bunk beds. Also last month, the Commission released figures about various recalls of toys given away by fast-food restaurants. Such toys have produced six injuries and two deaths. Finally, a few days ago the Commission said children under 12 should not ride motorized toy scooters because last year roughly 1,700 children using them were injured seriously enough to require an emergency-room visit.

All of which leaves one wondering when the Commission is going to do something about air bags. Five years ago, passenger-side airbags killed 35 children. A new report says only 18 children were killed by air bags last year. The government credits parents and design changes for the decline. Yet as seen in the examples above, mere injury - or even the possibility of it - is enough to bring about a recall of consumer goods. So why is the federal government sitting on its hands while youngsters die violent deaths? Probably because the federal government itself mandated the use of air bags as a safety measure. Even worse, Washington knew about the problem. Auto makers warned that air bags could inflict serious injury on children and small adults. In 1991, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration circulated an internal memo repeating those warnings. It mentioned "severe spinal cord injuries" and "ruptured aorta, rib fractures, severe myocardial contusions, etc." Nothing was done.

Air bags have saved a few thousand lives. They also have killed scores of individuals, both children and adults. Any private corporation selling a product with such a track record would find itself in court faster than you can say class-action lawsuit. But no one has called Washington to account, and in all likelihood no one can. Keep it in mind the next time D.C. safety experts advocate a great leap forward in consumer protection - because you could be standing at the edge of a cliff.

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