Brainy Air Bags

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In an immaculate Virginia research center, technicians from the Insurance Institute of Highway Safety are meticulously planning a catastrophe. Two dummies are positioned in a $40,000 German luxury sedan, the angle of their bodies adjusted with protractors, their seat belts positioned perfectly over their waists and shoulders, with the tension just so. The car is pitched into a huge concrete block at 40 mph and crushed into foil. But inside, the air bags inflate impressively; had these dummies been human, I am assured, they would have walked away from the accident.

The problem is, people, unlike dummies, are rarely positioned in their vehicles by technicians. When a crash occurs, a passenger could be, say, leaning forward over a map — during which time an air bag might inflate directly under that passenger's jaw, breaking his or her neck. Over the past decade, at least 165 people — more than half of them children — have died of air bag –related injuries. In response, the federal government has ordered that by 2004, 35 percent of new cars must be equipped with "advanced" air bags, which take into account your height and weight and react to changes in your position.