The policeman told me to get away from the smashed Mercedes. "There's a woman in that car and we think she's dead," he said. I was a little shaky at that point, but I looked at the policeman and said, "Well, I guess I'm the dead woman because I just crawled out of that car." He later said the airbag and seat belt were what saved me. I'll never own another car without an airbag. Cynthia Robb, Chicago, Ill.

I think I know how Cynthia feels. On the way back to Salt Lake City last week, after an afternoon at Morton International's Automotive Safety Products plant near the Ogden Airport, I cinched my seat belt extra tight. I also kept looking at the center of my steering wheel, wishing there were an air bag tucked in there ready to pop out and save me from certain death.Ironically, at a point on I-15 near Farmington a big sedan, the driver spooked by a semi changing lanes, suddenly cut across three lanes right in front of me. I had to stand on my brakes to keep from plowing into him. Funny, I thought, there's never an airbag around when you need one.

That's what comes of two hours of reading airbag survivor testimonials and watching videos depicting what happens to people who crash in cars that have airbags and what happens to those who crash in cars that do not. The latter is not a pretty sight. You come away a true believer.

For years, automakers have resisted the move to air-bags and, for that matter, even seat belts. "Safety doesn't sell," has been their cry to Congress. Well, as usual, they were wrong.

The fact is, said Roger D. Tea, Morton's vice president of human resources, while auto sales are way down industrywide, Morton's airbag sales have climbed 400 percent over the past two years with no downturn in sight.

Sales in 1987 were $25 million; $55 million in 1988; $162 million in 1989. Morton's current fiscal year is only half over, but there's no question sales are way up. Company officials aren't ruling out $1 billion in sales by 1995.

Tea said employment at Morton's two Utah plants, in Ogden and Brigham City, has grown to 1,200 with a dozen or so new hires every week.

Why all the growth in an industry that's in recession? Well, the automakers may be selling fewer cars, but a lot more of them have airbags and the percentage has nowhere to go but up.

Under current U.S. Department of Transportation regulations, explained Larry K. Hansen, Morton's marketing manager, all 1990 cars sold in this country must have a "passive restraint," system. That means either automatic seat belts, which most people dislike because they're a nuisance, or airbags (for now, only on the driver's side), which most people like because they are stashed away out of sight until they are (hopefully never) needed.

However, having said that, I promised Tea and Hansen that I would emphasize the following: Airbags are NOT a substitute for seat belts. Just because your car has an airbag doesn't mean you don't have to buckle up. Airbags are made to work in conjunction with a three-point lap/

shoulder harness belt.

By model year 1994, car manufacturers who have chosen airbags over automatic seat belts in their cars must also include an airbag for the passenger side as well as the driver's side. Overnight, the market for the devices will double.

A little background on the company may be in order at this point. Morton International was created in 1989 when Morton Thiokol was split up. Thiokol, based in Ogden, took over the aerospace portion of the business and Morton International, headquartered in Chicago, retained the Specialty Chemicals Group, the Salt Group - the business that started it all - and Automotive Safety Products (ASP), the airbag company.

Currently, ASP represents only about 10 percent of Morton International's $1.6 billion in annual sales, but that figure is bound to increase given the growth potential of the market. The company's recently opened plant in Brigham City includes 13 acres of floor space and about five times the capacity of the Ogden plant, which will remain in full operation.

Other new facilities for producing the sodium azide that, when ignited electronically, inflates the airbag with nitrogen gas to cushion a driver in a crash, are being added at the company's plant at Promontory, Box Elder County.

Basically, the plants in Ogden and Brigham are assembly operations. The bags and other parts for the inflators and modules that hold them are bought from various vendors and are put together, under specifications of the various auto manufacturers, at the two plants and then shipped to the carmakers. Morton does not provide the electronic sensors that measure rapid deceleration and tell the device a crash is happening and it needs to inflate, a process that takes about one-tenth of a second.

Morton has a variety of development and manufacturing arrangements with Mercedes-Benz, Ford, General Motors, Toyota, Nissan, Honda, Mazda, Isuzu, Saab and Audi - as does its major competitor in this country, TRW Inc. But Tea notes that Chrysler has been the leader in the effort in this country and Morton has an exclusive contract to produce that company's airbags.

Clearly, Chrysler has decided that safety will sell. Last week the company announced that in February it will begin equipping its popular Dodge Caravan and Plymouth Voyager minivans with optional driver-side airbags, the first U.S. automaker to offer them in the vehicles.

Currently, many of the safety regulations that govern passenger cars do not apply to vans and trucks. The federal government will require passive restraint systems in light trucks - including minivans - by the 1995 model year.

Chrysler made driver-side air bags standard equipment starting with its 1990 cars. General Motors Corp. makes them standard on about 15 car lines, while Ford Motor Co. puts driver-side air bags on its major lines, or about 1 million cars.

Incidentally, airbags cannot be retrofitted to existing cars, said Tea. They must be installed at the factory.

Hansen said the genesis of the air-bag goes back to 1968 when a Chrysler executive asked engineers at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, if it was feasible to make a "balloon" that would inflate during a crash and cushion the impact of a crash.

These were the days, said Hansen, when the idea of breakaway, cone-shaped steering wheels, padded dashboards, turn signals, and recessed knobs were considered revolutionary safety devices. Morton had an office at Dayton, Ohio and got involved in the initial experiments. It's been a leader in the industry ever since. Morton's first contract was with German autobuilder Mercedes-Benz for its U.S.-bound cars.

So far, the airbag concept is pretty much an American innovation, said Hansen, but the Japanese, as always, are coming on fast.

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(Additional story)

Airbag inflates efficiently and speedily

How does an airbag work? Quite efficiently and very quickly.

The airbag, or "inflatable restraint system" if you prefer the more dignified moniker, consists of crash sensors, some diagnostic equipment, a module that contains an inflator or gas generator and the bag itself.

The crash sensors, located in the front of the car, detect the rapid deceleration that occurs at an impact of 10-14 mph. Below that speed, the so-called fender bender, it won't activate. Nor will potholes, bumps or hard braking set it off.

Once a severe crash has been detected, the sensors send an electrical signal that activates an initiator. Like a light bulb, it contains a thin wire that heats up.

The heat sets off a pyrotechnic chain igniting the gas generant, a special material (sodium azide) made of fast-burning black pellets. These produce nitrogen gas that goes through a filtering process, reducing the temperature and removing most of the ash.

The gas escapes through a series of holes around the inflator module, which begins to fill the bag, which forces open the horn pad cover on the steering wheel, or on the dash board in the larger passenger version.

Within milliseconds of impact, the bag is inflating. It is fully inflated for only one-tenth of a second and deflates three-tenths of a second after impact.