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Life is fatal - but don't tell the Americans

John Carlin reports from Washington on the latest demons to torment a nation obsessed with safety
According to the least openly acknowledged but most heartfelt of the myths that shape the Land of Opportunity and the American Dream, cheating death is simply a matter of taking sensible precautions.

Hence a fixation with health and safety unmatched in the course of human history and a proliferation of "studies", scientific and statistical, whose unstated premise is the notion that dying is preventable. Behind the drumbeat of admonitions to avoid eggs, milk, meat and fried food, to ration the intake of cholesterol, fat and salt, lies the hysterical conviction that to do otherwise is to commit suicide, to throw away the opportunity of everlasting life.

So the cigarette has replaced the Bomb as Public Enemy Number One, and blowers of second-hand smoke have acquired the character of dangerous subversives. Schoolchildren are taught to fear tobacco as once they were taught to dread the communist threat. How else to explain a story on the front page of Friday's New York Times, where a self-confessed teenage smoker is quoted anonymously because, as the reporter explains, she was "willing to talk only if her name was not used"?

But terrors lurk everywhere. Take Venetian blinds. A study had warned that those unable to resist the urge to gnaw on blinds made of metal ran the risk of a slow and terrible death - because, the study had found, such blinds contained dangerously high levels of lead.

Cars offer a unique dilemma, because they represent a clash of ideals. Logic dictates that they should be banned altogether, since the evidence of numerous specialised studies has served only to confirm the findings of common sense, that they are machines of death. Yet they also symbolise - more than the flag, more than the Constitution itself - the spirit of American freedom. To dispense with cars would be as heretical as to forswear turkeys at Thanksgiving.

The challenge, therefore, has been to make cars perfectly safe. When the crushing discovery was made that reducing the speed limit on four- lane highways to a paltry 55mph had not altogether eliminated the possibility of fatal road accidents, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) hit upon the idea of equipping all new cars with airbags. These devices have been mandatory by law in recent years to protect both drivers and front-seat passengers.

Now new studies have demonstrated that safety regulations can kill. In the past three years 30 children and 20 adults have died following impact with airbags that explode, according to still more studies, with the ferocity of 200mph hurricanes. Often these deaths have occurred as a consequence of low-speed collisions which the victims would otherwise have survived.

Chastened, the NHTSA introduced corrective measures last week. Cars will now be required to carry labels warning that airbags can kill children and small adults. And, starting in January, the safety body desires that Americans who own cars with airbags in them hire a mechanic either to deactivate the killer within or reduce the force with which the devices automatically inflate.

These measures may compound the problem, because according to studies by safety experts, airbags have saved some 1,200 lives since their introduction in 1986.

Help lies at hand in the shape of "the smart bag". Scientists are working on a device which, like the "smart bomb", will be armed with a faculty to discriminate - in this case between small and large people. The smaller the person, the slower the airbag's rate of inflation. The NHTSA is already planning to make the smart bag mandatory in all new cars when it becomes available in 1999.

Meanwhile, the authorities are showing no inclination to impose restrictions on the sale of guns. The debate in America remains whether private citizens' constitutional right to own weapons of destruction ought to be extended to include combat rifles. As for the death penalty, there is no debate whatsoever.