Public, DOT Should Beware of Misleading Information From Auto Manufacturers on Air Bag

Feb. 17, 2000

Public, DOT Should Beware of Misleading Information From Auto Manufacturers on Air Bags

DOT Decision Due by March 1 on Critical Air Bag Standard

WASHINGTON, D.C. — An intense publicity blitz and lobbying campaign launched by auto manufacturers to influence the government s pending air bag rule contains misleading information that could lead to a substandard safety test, a coalition of consumer groups said today.

Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety, Parents for Safer Air Bags and the Consumer Federation of America on Thursday sent a letter to President Bill Clinton, pointing out flaws in the auto industry s arguments.

At issue is which higher-speed crash test should be used to test air bags — the 25 mph unbelted barrier crash test, which the industry wants, or the 30 mph unbelted crash test, which the consumer groups say will better protect the traveling public.

“The auto industry is distorting the facts in an attempt to manipulate both public opinion and the government s decision-making process,” said Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen. “The fact that this could result in a substandard safety test is unconscionable.”

Said Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety. “The air bag standard should not be written just to make it easier for auto manufacturers to comply. It should be set for the benefit of auto drivers and passengers.”

The key issue is how best to protect all drivers and passengers from being injured. The industry contends that the 30 mph test will make air bags too powerful, but consumer groups say that governments tests show that air bags will not have to be repowered to meet the 30 mph barrier test. The groups also point out that technology is readily available to ensure that all passengers of all sizes are protected. This technology includes dual-inflation air bags, which inflate at lower intensities in low-speed crashes while inflating at higher intensities to protect occupants involved in high-speed crashes, telescoping steering wheels and pedal extenders for shorter drivers, deep dish steering columns that move the air bag away from the occupant, air bag suppression, tethers, controlled inflation and much more.

“Consumers Union firmly believes that the automobile industry has the ability to devise and place in all vehicles by 2005 air bags that will protect all categories of passengers,” said Sally Greenberg, senior products safety counsel for Consumers Union, which also supports the 30 mph test. “We urge the government to insist that the industry rise to its technological abilities and be true to the concept of advanced air bags.”

The 25 mph test, Claybrook said, will not adequately protect automobile occupants in high-speed crashes, which are the kind of crashes that take the most lives. In fact, 50 percent of fatalities in frontal crashes occur at speeds higher than 30 mph, government data shows. Claybrook noted that unbelted male teenagers are more often fatality victims than other people.

Air bag deaths — now being used by the auto industry to fuel its argument — have occurred in low-speed crashes involving speeds under 20 mph. Setting the higher speed test at 25 mph would save automakers from redesigning their air bags, thus reducing their production costs, consumer group representatives said.

March 1 is the statutory deadline for the U.S. Department of Transportation s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to issue an advanced air bag rule that will improve the protection of all automobile occupants of all sizes, whether the are wearing a seatbelt or not, while minimizing risks of injury or death from air bags. Legislation requiring issuance of the rule called for the use of advanced air bag technology.

Automotive industry groups have launched a campaign to sway policymakers, visiting high-level administration officials and testifying before Congress. This week, they took out full-page ads in major newspapers in an open letter to Clinton. They have solicited nonprofit groups they fund to join their campaign.

In the letter to Clinton, Claybrook, Ditlow and Sanders noted that:

  • More than 80 million vehicles were manufactured between 1987 and 1999 with air bags involved in more than three million deployments that meet the 30 mph unbelted male barrier crash test. Despite all the real world experience with vehicles meeting the 30 mph test, the auto industry has produced no data showing that smaller adults or children were injured or killed by such air bags in higher speed crashes.
  • If the companies believe the air bags installed to meet the 30 mph test are dangerous, they should immediately notify all owners and recall these cars. Yet they have not done so.
  • Air bags that have been depowered will not have to be repowered to meet the 30 mph test, as the industry implies. Virtually all of the DOT unbelted male crash tests of recent model depowered air bag vehicles with unbelted males pass at 30 mph, and these vehicles do not yet contain the newer technologies available to meet the advanced air bag standard;
  • DOT has estimated that as many as 397 lives will be lost annually if the 25 mph test is used as opposed to the 30 mph test;
  • Over half of all fatalities occur in barrier equivalent crashes of 30 mph or above. And speed limits on roads have increased dramatically, with 29 states setting limits at 70 mph and higher, and 11 states permitting speeds or 75 mph and higher.

“We do not have to choose between saving unbelted occupants in high-speed crashes and having safe air bags,” said Rob Sanders, director of Parents for Safer Air Bags. “Both goals can be met with good design and engineering.”

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Letter to President Bill Clinton

Joan Claybrook Statement

Key Air Bag Facts

Comments on Auto Manufacturer Positions

Auto Industry Uses Misleading IIHS Study

Industry Has Submitted No Data Supporting the 25 mph Crash Test

Key Advanced Air Bag Legislative History

Facts in NHTSA SNPRM That Support 30 mph Crash Test

Other Key Rulemaking Issues