Are Chrysler Air Bags Lethal?

Federal regulators were stunned by a crash test that showed the passenger dummy in a 1997 Chrysler minivan sustained life-threatening injuries -- injuries that were caused by the vehicle's air bag, CBS News Correspondent Bob Orr reports.

Now, CBS News has learned the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, has completed 11 additional tests of Chrysler minivan air bags. In the majority of those tests, the passenger-side air bag caused what would be catastrophic injuries.

Chrysler challenges the government's testing method, claiming the small dummy used isn't yet perfected, and Chrysler claims its own tests show the air bag is safe. Susan Cischke, Chrysler's vice president of safety says, "We don't believe there is anything wrong with the airbag system."

But also troubling to regulators is what they found when they took a second look at real world accidents. The government's special crash investigation has found that of the 22 air bag-related deaths and serious injuries involving passengers in minivans, 20 of them have been in Chrysler models built between 1994 and 1996.

"The bag is too aggressive, too big, it's not tethered," said Clarence Ditlow, an auto safety advocate.

Two and a half years ago, Ditlow asked the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to investigate the Chrysler air bag. At the time, there had been nine passenger fatalities. The request was turned down.

"The government now has the deaths it wants," Ditlow said. "The government should now order Chrysler to do a recall if Chrysler won't do it itself."

Rob Sanders also wants Chrysler to make changes. His daughter Allison was killed in 1995 in a low-speed collision involving the family's Chrysler minivan.

The seven year old had slipped off her shoulder harness to reach for the radio when the crash happened. The air bag exploded in Allison's face. "And then I turned over and looked at Allison and saw that she was unconscious and I was just shocked and horrified," Sanders said. "I couldn't understand why she would be in that kind of condition in such a minor fender-bender accident."

Sanders is suing Chrysler, alleging that a defective air bag system caused the deaths. But, Chrysler says, like Allison Sanders, nearly all of those killed were unbelted or improperly belted. Chrysler also points out it has two thirds of all minivans on America's highways and therefore faces a statistically higher probability of accidental deaths.

Also, Chrysler switched to a less forceful passenger side air bag during the 1997 model year. In 1998, along with other automakers, they began using an even lower-powered air bag.

But nearly two million older Chrysler minivans, with the original, more powerful, air bags, remain on the road. At this point, Chrysler has no plans for a voluntary recall. But sources say the government is close to deciding whether to launch a formal "defects" invesigation that ultimately may force the issue.

The vehicles in question are Chrysler, Dodge and Plymouth minivans 1994 through 1996 and part of model year 1997.

CBS Worldwide Corp. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed