DETROIT - Air bags save lives. Unfortunately, the often-violent inflation forces mean air bags also can take lives or cause serious injuries among small-stature adults and children. Although the controversy surrounding air bags has "lost some wind," the essential problem remains: how to ensure proper air bag protection while simultaneously protecting occupants from the undesirable aspects of air bag deployment.

Most automakers have been working assiduously to developer safer, "smart" SRS (supplemental restraint systems) that protect when necessary, yet remove the potential for non-crash injury.

BMW AG, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota Motor Corp, to name a few, have SRS systems that incorporate some aspects of "intelligent" integration. But Ford Motor Co. is the first to introduce a smart SRS system that completely integrates air bags and seatbelts.

Ford announces at the January North American International Auto Show here its Advanced Restraints System (ARS), which electronically and mechanically "customizes" air bag and safety belt deployment according to individual front seat occupants and actual conditions in frontal crashes.

The ARS's crash-severity sensor mounted at the front of the vehicle measures the crash based on how fast the vehicle is decelerating. Other sensors monitor the driver's seat position in relation to the steering wheel, whether someone is occupying the passenger seat (and how much this person weighs) and if driver and passenger are wearing their seatbelts. Information from these sensors is communicated to the restraint control module, which activates the appropriate level of air bag protection for both the driver and passenger.

The ARS features dual-stage inflating air bags with variable-rate gas delivery so they inflate the air bags according to accident severity and passenger load.

Ford plans to introduce the ARS on the redesigned model year 2000 Taurus that will appear later this year; Ford's chief technical officer, Neil Ressler, says the ARS system should be standard equipment on all of Ford's cars, trucks and SUVs within three years. Ford says it won't increase prices to cover the cost of ARS.