NHTSA Plan to Improve Side-Impact Protection Is Positive Step but not Enough; Vehicle Safety Legislation Still Needed

May 12, 2004

NHTSA Plan to Improve Side-Impact Protection Is Positive Step but not Enough; Vehicle Safety Legislation Still Needed

Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) announcement that it plans to require improved safety protections in side-impact crashes is a much-needed step in the right direction but isn’t enough. We have seen repeatedly that voluntary standards don’t work. Instead, the requirements contained in pending highway safety legislation are the best way to reduce deaths and should be enacted.

NHTSA’s plan is positive because it will likely result in the installation of side head air bags, which are highly effective in saving lives. This protection is critical in crashes involving high-riding SUVs or pickup trucks and in rollover crashes, because side air bags help prevent people from being ejected. They also help protect against vehicle mismatch – that is, when an SUV or pickup truck crashes into a car.

This standard is long overdue. In 1999, NHTSA’s administrator asked automakers to develop voluntary standards for side air bags. But what happened next illustrates why voluntary standards were then – and are now – inadequate. Consumers and the public were shut out of the process, and few automakers installed side air bags. Others charged large mark-ups or made side air bags available only in luxury models or as an expensive extra. Voluntary standards won’t work; they are created without public involvement, they can’t be enforced, and there is no way for consumers to know whether a company has complied. 

The solution is   S. 1072, the auto safety legislation that is part of the pending highway bill (SAFETEA). This bill requires NHTSA to upgrade the side-impact protection standard and issue a final rule by the end of 2007 (the same deadline proposed by NHTSA).   The bill also takes a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to reducing harm from ejection, rollovers and vehicle mismatch.  Passage would ensure that standards are upgraded on a public – and certain – timetable, regardless of possible changes in the leadership of the agency. 

Consumers demand safety because they know that it is feasible. They shouldn’t have to buy a luxury vehicle to obtain safety features that protect them in side crashes and rollovers. Nor should they have to rely on the whims of the auto industry, which under a voluntary program may or may not install side crash protections in all vehicles. We need mandatory side impact crash protections, and we need them now.

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Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-81.  Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. For more information on the bill, click here. A statement of Abigail Baglioni, of Tappan, N.Y., who was needlessly and severely injured in a side impact crash, on the need for side impact airbags is available by clicking here.