IT WAS AN AUTUMN SUNDAY A YEAR ago, and Robert Sanders and his wife, Lyn, had just spent the weekend playing in the yard with his three older kids. Now it was time to return them to their mother, his first wife, Beth Sanders, in suburban Silver Spring, Md., outside Washington. Sanders, a Baltimore attorney, scooted the children into the minivan he had bought just three weeks earlier and buckled them in. But they hadn’t driven far when Sanders braked late for a light and slid into an intersection at about 15 mph. His Dodge Caravan banged into another van, and the front-seat air bags deployed perfectly.
Sanders’s sons David, then 9, and Matthew, 10, were safe in the backseat, and Sanders himself was uninjured. But when he checked on 7-year-old Alison in the passenger seat, he was stunned. “She was lying sideways,” he says, “slumped over and unconscious.” In fact, Alison was brain-dead, having sustained severe head injuries from the sheer explosive force of the very device that was meant to protect her.
In the months since his daughter’s death, Sanders, 46, has turned his pain and anger into a national campaign to warn parents of the risks that air bags, designed to protect average-size adults, could pose for their kids. “The public has been lulled into thinking that air bags are a wonderful, protective safety device,” he says. “That certainly is not true for children.” After reading of similar accidents in USA Today, Sanders found the parents of 17 other children killed by air bags and, in July, formed the Parents’ Coalition for Air Bag Warnings. Last month they met with federal officials to demand that stern warnings be placed on dashboards and to seek a commitment to require automakers to install “smart” air bags that adjust to the size of individual passengers. Sanders has also sued Chrysler for negligence. (The company has a policy of not responding to inquiries about cases in litigation.)
In answer to pressure from Sanders’s coalition, the media and federal safety officials, General Motors, Chrysler and Ford recently announced plans to install warning labels and to notify owners of cars already equipped with passenger-side air bags that children should always ride in the backseat. “We do have a problem,” acknowledged Andrew H. Card Jr., president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. “But we also have a wonderful safety device in air bags.” Air bags have been credited with saving some 1,100 lives.
Of course, Sanders’s victory comes too late to save Alison, who would have celebrated her 8th birthday on July 27. “We bear the unbearable every day,” says Alison’s mother, Beth, 42, an assistant to author Sarah Ban Breathnach. Although their 15-year marriage ended in divorce three years ago—Rob remarried in 1994 and has an 18-month-old daughter with Lyn, 43—the two remain close. Sanders drops by Beth’s redbrick home regularly to visit Alison’s bedroom, where the little girl’s clothes are still tucked neatly in her dresser and stuffed animals nestle beside her dollhouse. In the living room stands a table with Alison’s picture, a vase of flowers and a candle. “This is a sacred spot for me,” says Beth.
Rob and Beth remember their daughter as an intense, independent child, who had been learning to knit during her first weeks at the Washington Waldorf School in Bethesda, Md. Her dad also remembers her kindness. Once, he and the kids were entering Camden Yards for a baseball game when Alison spotted an old woman begging. “Alison grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let me move on until I had donated some money,” he says.
Now he has only memories and, of course, his regrets. It was mostly for the children that Sanders had replaced his decade-old Honda with the minivan that promised safety but brought something less. “Truth is,” he says grimly, “without the air bag, Alison would be alive today.”
ROCHELLE JONES in Silver Spring