The government estimates that 15,000 people have been saved by airbags since then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole signed an order on July 11, 1984, requiring all vehicles to have driver's side air bags or automatic seat belts by 1989 and passenger-side bags soon after, according to a report by the Associated Press on July 10.To placate opponents to the rule, Dole promised it would be rescinded if states that accounted for two-thirds of the population passed laws requiring seat belt use. Dole, now a Republican senator from North Carolina, said tying seat belt use to air bags made sense in an era when the national seat belt use rate was just 13 percent, compared with 79 percent today.The rule followed fierce debate between airbag advocates and airbag opponents, who objected to the cost and warned that because the devices deployed with such force —well over 100 mph — they could harm people, particularly children. The warning was prophetic: 242 deaths — many of them children or small women — are blamed on air bags. Deaths peaked in 1997, when 53 people — including 31 children — were killed.By 2006, every new vehicle will have sensors to make sure airbags inflate lightly or not at all if the occupant is too small. Dr. Jeffrey Runge, who heads the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, said those deaths are one reason NHTSA is slowly phasing in a regulation requiring side air bags by 2009.``The last thing we want to do is repeat what happened in the mid-1990s,'' Runge said. He believes the side air bags will save 1,000 lives per year. Automakers say they will add $200 to $500 to the cost of a vehicle.