On a chilly afternoon in Boise, Idaho, on the day before Thanksgiving, 1-year-old Alexandra Greer was riding in the front seat of her mother's Volkswagen Jetta when the car accidentally bumped the vehicle in front of it.
By all accounts it should have been no more than a routine fender bender. But the collision activated the car's air bags, which rocketed into the passenger seat at 200 mph and decapitated the infant as she sat bundled in a rear-facing child restraint.
Just days before the tragedy, which occurred in a shopping mall parking lot, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had announced that it would require that explicit warnings be posted in all new vehicles alerting drivers to the danger posed to children and small adults by air bags.
The agency appeared to renew a vigorous debate between safety advocates and auto manufacturers over air bags and the kind of system that would best protect people in car accidents.
Air bags have been blamed for the deaths of 32 children and 20 small adults in low-speed crashes like the one that killed Alexandra Greer, federal highway safety statistics show.
As a result, many safety advocates were demanding changes last week to reduce the impact of inflating air bags or to allow drivers to disable them.
Lost in the commotion, however, were the thousands of deaths and injuries to children caused not by air bags but by carelessness, ignorance or confusion surrounding far more common devices such as child restraints and seat belts.
Under California law, children who are younger than 4 or weigh less than 40 pounds are required to be securely fastened in a federally approved child safety seat, said Steve Kohler, a spokesman for the California Highway Patrol. Failure to comply with the state regulations could bring a $100 fine.
There is a mistaken belief that children are safer in an adult's arms or in the front seat where their activities can be more closely monitored by a parent, said Cheryl Neverman, a specialist with the safety administration. But, she said, "parents don't understand there are serious or even deadly consequences" to those practices.
The risk to children is greatly reduced when they are strapped securely in a child restraint or in a safety belt in the back seat, Neverman said. But, she noted, a recent safety administration national study found that those devices were not used properly 80% of the time. In four of 10 fatal accidents involving young children, no restraint was used at all.
A major complaint about child restraints is what one safety advocate described as "the compatibility problem"--meaning they can be awkward and inconvenient.
"There's an assumption that child seats are easy to use. Unfortunately, that's not true. People need to set a priority on safety and a priority on planning for it. It's not as simple as going down to the store and picking one up," Neverman said.
Too often, a customer will buy a child restraint only to get bogged down in vague instructions, problem belts and devices that don't fit well--or at all--with the vehicle's seats, said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, a national consumer group.
"Ideally, what should be required is a child restraint system built right into the back seat of every vehicle," Claybrook said. "The current system is just terrible, and it's frustrating for anyone with children."
Aware of those concerns, federal officials are considering new proposals for uniform seat standards.
One plan, put forward by General Motors and national child seat manufacturers, would use a single anchorage system based on belts and a tether to the car's roof. This "soft system," according to GM spokesman Kyle Johnson, would ease installation.
A competing proposal by European manufactures, known as ISOFIX, is based on a rigid design that would fasten the child carrier to a steel frame built into the car seat.
Whichever system prevails, consumers can expect to pay more. Car seat prices, which now range from about $50 to more than $100, would probably double with a new system, Neverman said.
But with such proposed changes "years away," according to Neverman, federal officials are trying to stress education. One such effort is to develop a CD-ROM that would be available in car showrooms, instructing buyers about makes and models of child seats.