The so-called dual-stage air bag, standard equipment on the 2000 Ford Taurus and Honda Accord, along with some luxury cars, tailors the force of its inflation to the severity of a crash.
In serious crashes, when passengers need the devices' full power to cushion them, the new bags inflate with about the same force as those in 1999 model cars. But in lower speed crashes, the air bags pop open with at least 20 percent less force.
"Today in cars we have a one-bag-fits-all mentality. This changes all that," says Stephen Kozak, a Ford engineer who oversaw the Taurus system's development.
A sensor in the front of the car detects the severity of a crash by calculating the change of velocity that occurs when another object, such as a car, crashes into it. Another sensor registers whether a front seat belt is buckled. If a belt is being used, the full force of the air bag also is delayed until a higher speed when it is needed.
Government officials, automakers, insurers and safety advocacy groups agree the new technology will reduce air bag deaths and injuries particularly of young children and shorter adults in low-speed crashes.
"It reduces the risk (of deaths and injuries) dramatically in better tailoring the air bag inflation to the crash," said Dr. Ricardo Martinez, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Air bags have been blamed for at least 145 deaths -- mostly children and shorter women -- in low-speed crashes the victims otherwise should have survived, causing a public outcry. But air bags also have saved an estimated 4,600 lives in higher-speed crashes.
Ford Motor Co. has the dual-inflation air bags on both the driver and passenger side of its model year 2000 Taurus, the third-best-selling car nationwide. Honda Motor Co. has them on just the passenger side of its 2000 Accords. The Accord is the second-best-selling car.
The decision by Ford and Honda to put the technology on their top-selling family cars as standard equipment means that for the first time advanced air bags are reaching large numbers of American families. The automakers say they plan eventually to expand the system to other vehicles.
"You're going to see this technology spread very rapidly," said Brian O'Neill of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
Several luxury automakers also have dual-stage air bags on some 2000 models, such as the Mercedes-Benz S-class sedans and BMW 3-, 5- and 7-series sedans, but all those models sell in much smaller numbers because of their high costs. Some Honda Acuras had a dual-stage bag for the 1999 model year.
Toyota, which makes the Camry the nation's best-selling car last year has not announced plans for dual-stage air bags; neither hae other major automakers in the United States: General Motors and Daimler Chrysler AG.
But GM spokesman Terry Rhadigan said: "It's no secret that we and everyone else are working on that. It's the wave of the future."