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NHTSA Plan to Improve Side-Impact Protection Is Positive Step, But Pending Vehicle Safety Bill Still Critical

May 11, 2004

NHTSA Plan to Improve Side-Impact Protection Is Positive Step, But Pending Vehicle Safety Bill Still Critical

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, as it will likely result in the installation of side head air bags, a highly effective safeguard. This protection is critical for all vehicles, but particularly in crashes involving high-riding SUVs or pickup trucks. It’s also important for protection in rollover crashes, as side air bags will reduce ejections. We will urge NHTSA to require rollover sensors for side head air bags as part of its new rule.

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

Consumers demand safety because they know that it is feasible. Side head air bags are a perfect example of a critical safety system that should be standard in all vehicles. Collisions between a car and an SUV or pick-up truck are increasing highway deaths, so the agency should also tackle vehicle mismatch by requiring changes to reduce the violence light trucks inflict on cars. By addressing impacts only in the struck vehicle, the Department of Transportation and automakers, which have formed an industry working group, examine only half the problem.

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 includes a new safety standard and consumer information program on vehicle mismatch that addresses both the struck and the striking vehicle.  The bill takes a comprehensive, multi-pronged approach to reducing harm from ejection, rollovers and vehicle mismatch.  Passage would ensure that standards are upgraded and lives saved, regardless of possible changes in the leadership of the agency.  House and Senate negotiators should ensure that these critical vehicle safety reforms are in the enacted bill.


Joan Claybrook was administrator of NHTSA from 1977-81.  Public Citizen is a national, nonprofit consumer advocacy organization. For more information on the bill, go to https://www.citizen.org/our-work/health-and-safety/articles/safetea-safety-all-campaign. 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 at https://www.citizen.org/our-work/litigation/articles/statement-abigail-baglioni.