The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said Thursday that it has begun an inquiry into air bag-related deaths of seven children who were passengers in Hyundai Motor Co.'s 1995-97 Accent economy cars.
The agency has been concerned that air bags deploy and inflate with so much force that the impact can hurt or even kill a small child or adult. As a result, some air bag makers have reduced the explosive charge used to deploy the bags, although that change now has brought complaints that the bags don't work effectively enough to protect a 200-pound adult who is not wearing a seat belt.
The Accent, imported and distributed by Fountain Valley-based Hyundai Motor America Inc., ranked first in the rate of deaths caused by passenger-side air bags, according to a comparison of 80 models in the last five years, traffic safety officials said.
The agency Wednesday closed its inquiry into DaimlerChrysler AG's minivan air bags, which are blamed in the deaths of 12 children. The agency decided that the number of children's deaths attributed to air bags in the Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Chrysler Town and Country vans wasn't out of line considering the large number of DaimlerChrysler minivans on the road.
Hyundai, which sells far fewer vehicles than DaimlerChrysler or other auto makers included in the study, had a higher rate of child deaths per 1,000 vehicles.
A spokesman for Hyundai Motor America said the company will cooperate fully but believes it has been singled out because of statistical sampling that it argues isn't a valid measure of vehicle safety.
In a prepared statement Thursday, Hyundai said it is aware of the deaths involving children under 5 who were riding in the front seats of the Accent models and suggested that improper use of seat belts was the cause or a contributing factor.
"In each instance investigated by Hyundai," the company said, "the children were either unbelted or improperly belted or were in a rear-facing child seat."
The South Korean auto importer said it provides clear warnings in all of its cars that children should be placed in rear seats of air bag-equipped cars.
The Accent was a new design in the 1995 model year, and that design won't be changed until the 2000 models come out in October, spokesman Mike Anson said Thursday. The car meets all federal safety standards, he said.
Hyundai says it sold 140,000 Accents from 1995 through 1997 and has sold an additional 51,000 since then with no reports of air bag-related child deaths.
"People are getting smarter about air bags. They now understand they are supposed to put kids in the back," Anson said.