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Court Ruling in Air Bag Case Misguided; Public Remains at Risk

July 20, 2004

Court Ruling in Air Bag Case Misguided; Public Remains at Risk

Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President, and Clarence Ditlow, Executive Director of the Center for Auto Safety

We are disappointed with today’s decision by the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia sustaining the federal government’s rule setting a 25-mile-per-hour air bag crash test standard rather than a 30-mile-per-hour, high-speed test – a test that was in effect for many years. The 30-mile-per-hour test is 44 percent more stringent than the 25-mile-per-hour test.

We continue to believe that the 25-mile-per-hour standard set by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will not adequately protect occupants against injuries sustained in high-speed crashes – which is what air bags are designed to do. NHTSA’s new standard weakens protection for vehicle occupants in high-speed crashes, contrary to Congress’s mandate in the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century that the agency improve occupant protection.

NHTSA’s new 25-mile-per-hour standard gives auto manufacturers a green light to reduce the protection of people in high-speed crashes, which by NHTSA’s own estimates will result in the annual loss of 400 lives that would otherwise have been saved by air bags.

NHTSA and the court assumed that manufacturers will not take advantage of this green light to reduce occupant protection, and manufacturers have said they will not. We call upon manufacturers to live up to their promises – although without the 30-mile-per-hour standard, the public cannot be assured they will. We have little faith in the companies, given that the industry keeps an eye on the bottom line when designing cars and has skimped on safety to save a few dollars.

Unfortunately, manufacturers have an incentive to reduce protection because it is cheaper to depower an air bag than to employ advanced air bag technology, which would improve occupant protection while minimizing risk to children and small adults. NHTSA’s standard now does less than it should to promote the use of advanced technology.

Another problem is that NHTSA adopted the 25-mile-per-hour standard on an “interim” basis only through August 2006. The court assumed that NHTSA would evaluate data on air bag performance and issue a permanent standard in 2006. It is too late to issue a rule by 2006, though, as the agency has taken no public steps toward enacting a permanent rule.

We urge the agency to immediately begin the process to issue a permanent air bag standard that protects occupants in higher-speed crashes while minimizing risk, and to publish the data it gathers about air bag performance – data that so far has not been made available to the public.

To read the ruling, click here.