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Safety Advocates Urge Upgrade of Air Bag Test

April 20, 1998

Safety Advocates Urge Upgrade of Air Bag Test

Washington, D.C. — Leading national consumer groups today urged the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) to urgently upgrade its air bag safety tests to prevent people from being killed and seriously injured by poorly designed air bags.

The groups — the Center for Auto Safety, Consumer Federation of America, Parents for Safer Air Bags, and Public Citizen — petitioned the agency to expand the present tests which currently use only a properly positioned dummy representing a 170-pound male in a 30-mph crash and do not test for vehicle occupants of other sizes in other positions.

“NHTSA cannot assume auto makers will test for crash conditions not required by law,” said Rob Sanders of Parents for Safer Air Bags. “Some manufacturers have taken advantage of a minimum standard, with lethal consequences.”

Air bags have killed 96 people, including 54 children under 11 and 25 women shorter than 5-foot-four. Many manufacturers have deliberately chosen air bag designs that meet the minimum standard but which are dangerous for children and women in low-speed collisions. The suppliers are ready to sell better systems to the manufacturers.

Even more shocking is that auto companies are lobbying Congress and the Department of Transportation to go slow and not set any firm deadlines for setting a proper air bag safety standard.

“To protect all their passengers — big, small, young and old — manufacturers must test for the whole family, not just the large male,” said Public Citizen President and former NHTSA administrator Joan Claybrook. “It s time testing by all auto companies caught up with technology and the real world evidence of injury in crashes.”

The groups say the only way to ensure that safe designs will be used by all, and not just some, manufacturers is to upgrade the federal standard to include real world crash conditions.

In September 1996, the National Transportation Safety Board issued an “urgent” safety recommendation that NHTSA “immediately revise” the air bag performance standard to “establish performance requirements that reflect the actual accident environment.” Despite NHTSA s announcement it would propose an upgrade in “early 1997,” no such proposed rule has been issued to date.

While some manufacturers have incorporated widely available technology in their air bag designs that address real-world crash conditions, many have not. “We are faced with air bag deaths and severe injuries because some auto manufacturers failed to use design features that would have prevented the problem,” said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety.

Some air bags are much safer than others, say the groups, and manufacturers should aspire to maximize safety benefits, not just comply with the minimum federal standard.

According to NHTSA data, eight manufacturers (Alfa Romeo, BMW, Honda, Mercedes Benz, Nissan, Porsche, Saab and Subaru ) have had no passenger-side air bag deaths or severe injuries. Other companies have installed poorly designed air bags which have resulted in deaths and severe injuries.

“Ten children have been killed and six others severely injured in Chrysler minivans, yet the company deliberately chose not to test the bags in its family-style minivans with child dummies,” said Sanders.

Design features which have been available for some time, but which some manufacturers have chosen to ignore, include inflators that deploy with less force in low-speed collisions, inflators that do not deploy under 18 mph for belted occupants, passenger-side vertically-deploying air bags (those that are installed at the top of the dash and inflate by crawling up the windshield rather than directly at the passenger), and deep dish steering wheel air bags.

Today s petition says the present test “allows air bags to enter the market that meet the minimal standard but are hazardous to children and short women drivers in low-speed collisions. This standard must be changed now, without any further obfuscation or delay.”

The Senate ISTEA bill passed in March would require NHTSA to propose an upgraded standard by June 1, 1998, and a final rule on June 1, 1999. The consumer groups are urging the House-Senate Conference Committee to include these deadlines in the final version of the bill.