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Drivers Detail Air Bag Horrors

Oct 10, 1998 WASHINGTON (AP) - Ross Kelley was sitting in his 1994 Chrysler minivan, parked in a driveway with the motor on and waiting for a friend, when his air bag suddenly burst open with a bang.

``The air bag just blew up in my face,'' Kelley recalled. ``It felt like someone reached through the window and punched me.''

Kelley, of Cheshire, Conn., who suffered no serious injuries, is among hundreds of consumers across the country reporting the scary experience of air bags' deploying without being triggered by a crash.

General Motors recently recalled nearly 1 million autos to repair such sensitive air bag systems. The federal highway safety agency is investigating another 1.6 million Chrysler, Mazda, Subaru and Mitsubishi vehicles based on complaints that the devices are inflating inadvertently, according to a review of agency records by The Associated Press.

Three-quarters of those autos are Chrysler minivans and cars. Chrysler engineers are examining the deployments, which they say are rare.

``We haven't concluded anything yet,'' said Chrysler spokeswoman Jodi Armstrong. ``The caution here is not to create undue panic because there is already so much panic out there about air bags.''

Public concern about air bags stems from the 108 deaths the government blames on the air bag itself in low-speed accidents since 1990. Most of those killed were children or small adults.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently expanded its investigation of Chrysler minivans to 878,000 Dodge Caravan, Plymouth Voyager and Town & County minivans from model years 1994 and 1995. There have been 28 consumer complaints - most involving driver air bags that blew open just after the driver turned the ignition key, the agency said.

Chrysler engineers are now focusing on whether an electrical short can occur in the air bag wiring. In some cases, Chrysler inspectors found damage on the minivans suggesting air bags went off properly after the vehicle collided with something on the road.

The government safety agency is also looking into:

Nearly 100 complaints from Dodge and Plymouth Neon owners that their dual air bags inflated when they hit a pothole or curb or were simply driving and hit nothing, leading to 13 crashes and 28 injuries. In a letter to the agency, Chrysler's Sue Cischke said that in many of these cases, the car's underbody or body struck something in the road. She said the Neon's air bag system was not defective.

More than 50 complaints that air bags deployed on 1995 and 1996 Mazda 626 and MX6 cars after the cars hit a pothole or curb, got a flat tire, the driver braked or for no apparent reason. There were 32 reported injuries.

Twenty-nine reports of both air bags inflating on some 1994 and 1995 Subaru Impreza and Legacy wagons causing 15 injuries after the underbody of the wagons hit a curb, bump or pothole or, in a few cases, hit nothing.

Five complaints that driver-side air bags deployed on the 1994 Mitsubishi Mirage and its twin, the Eagle Summit. Federal and local officials are investigating whether the February death of Kerri Valecek of Schaumburg, Ill., was caused by an inadvertent air bag deployment on her 1994 Mirage.

A lawyer for Ms. Valecek's family, Kevin Murphy, said it appeared the air bag ``just went off'' as she turned onto a vacant road on her way home from work. A police report says the car coasted over a snow bank that may have triggered the air bag. The coroner's report was inconclusive.

Mitsubishi spokesman Kim Custer said the company was investigating.

Earlier this month, GM recalled 1996-97 Chevrolet Cavaliers and Pontiac Sunfires and 1995 Cadillacs after more than 300 complaints of inadvertent deployments, allegedly causing 130 injuries. Most of those cars were recalled to change programming in the air bag computer.

Chrysler engineers say in many of the minivan cases, the air bag warning light was on, meaning owners should bring their vehicles to dealerships immediately for inspection.

Ross Kelley's grandfather, Ray, said the air bag warning light went on intermittently about a week before he left on vacation and asked his grandson to look after the minivan.

The older Kelley said he was going to have the minivan checked eventually, but was confused because the light went back off. ``They say it was my fault. No way.

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