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Knoxville — Government automobile safety regulators have announced new rules requiring automakers to use smaller test dummies in air bag crash tests in addition to the man-size mannequins currently used.

A University of Tennessee crash safety researcher said Tuesday that the new tests will lead to better protection for small women and children.

Dr. Tyler Kress, an industrial engineering professor, said until now airbags have been a one size fits all design.

“Air bags originally were designed with the idea being that if they could protect larger people, they could protect everybody,” Kress said. “Well, when you design for one set of the populations, then you exclude others. We have different heights, different weights, and people that break differently.

“So the need to understand the optimal design for each individual is what we are striving for with the new tests.”

Kress said air bags have saved thousands of lives, but killed more than 150 children and small adults since 1990.

The new tests can lead to safer air bag designs, but technological hurdles still remain, he said.

“Not only do we need information and knowledge of how air bag systems should work, but new designs and technologies also are important,” Kress said. “Yes, we have sensors and means to fill the bags rapidly, but that technology can use a lot of work, too.

“For example, in an accident, the system has to instantly recognize it, determine how bad it is and deploy an airbag within 50 milliseconds. That is not a trivial engineering problem.”