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Carmakers await air-bag ruling. Decision expected to be one of Scalia's last on federal bench

One of the last cases Antonin Scalia is expected to decide before heading to the Supreme Court of the United States in October will help determine the future of seat belts in cars. Domestic automakers will learn whether they must install air bags instead of seat belts in the front seats of cars. Mr. Scalia, one of the judges who has heard the case, reportedly wants to finish his current case load.

This case, pending in the US Court of Appeals in Washington, proceeds in the wake of a recently released study that questions whether lap-and-shoulder belts should be required in the rear seats of cars.

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Insurers, plaintiffs in the federal case, argue that the US government has no right to make a ruling about seat belts and airbags that hinges on what actions states take.

If states with more than two-thirds of the American population pass laws by the fall of 1989 requiring drivers and passengers to buckle up, the government ruled, then auto manufacturers would not be required to install air bags for the driver and front-seat passengers.

If the court agrees with the insurance companies, which generally favor air bags, carmakers might have to put air bags, or other passive restraints such as automatic seat belts, into new cars.

But if the court rules the other way, the air-bag and seat-belt controversy takes a new turn. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole then will have to look at the laws 26 states and the District of Columbia have passed requiring car occupants to use seat belts.

The big question is whether the state laws meet the requirements she has set out. Her criteria include the strict enforcement of related laws and a minimum fine of $25 for violating the laws.

That, says Robert Dewey of the nonprofit Center for Auto Safety, is where ``the real controversy comes.'' Strictly speaking, he says, ``none of these state laws'' meets the criteria, although the federal government may have to be flexible in assessing the laws.

However the court case comes out, safety experts say the issue properly should not be considered as air bags versus seat belts. Rather, both should be used. ``The air bag and the [lap-and-shoulder] belt systems complement one another to provide the maximum protection that you can get with present technology,'' says Brian O'Neill, president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

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Using the two together provides more protection in front-end collisions, he and others say. And, unlike the airbag, the lap-and-shoulder belt gives protection in rear-end and side accidents, and in cases of roll-overs.

Another seatbelt controversy suddenly has erupted in Washington: Should lap-and-shoulder belts be required for the rear seats of all new automobiles? Currently lap belts only are mandated; only a few automobiles, made overseas, carry the lap-and-shoulder belts in the rear.

The issue surfaced with a recent study by the National Transportation Safety Board, which found that in many cases, passengers in rear seats wearing lap belts were more seriously injured in accidents than those who wore no belt. The finding did not surprise safety experts, however. ``We've known for a long time'' says Brian O'Neill, ``that a lap belt is not enough.''

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