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Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook on NHTSA’ s Advanced Air Bag Rule

Feb. 17, 2000

    Statement of Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook
on NHTSA’ s Advanced Air Bag Rule

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is on the verge of making a decision that will be critical to the safety of millions of motorists. By March 1, the agency is required by law to issue a new air bag standard to protect belted and unbelted occupants of all sizes while minimizing the risks to infants, children and other occupants from injuries and deaths caused by air bags.

Today we would like to correct the misleading and self-serving information that the automobile industry has been peddling to the public and to the Clinton administration. Some of misinformation was contained in full-page ads costing $50,000 that have been running this week in the Washington Post.

First, I’d like to say something about the industry’s campaign. They have corralled a number of non-profit groups to attend top level meetings or be listed in ads. The industry has tried to convey the impression most safety groups support their position. But virtually all of these groups receive funding from the auto industry. The consumer and safety groups you see here today are the ones who have been working on this issue for years and are completely independent of the auto industry.

The major issue the auto companies have raised is that there is a trade-off: a standard that results in air bag systems that save drivers and passengers from serious injuries and death in high-speed crashes could at the same time endanger children and small adults in such crashes. The crash test is the determining factor. Should the crash test be conducted at 30 miles per hour or at 25 miles per hour, as the industry wants? This is a vital question, because it will determine whether the automakers install advanced, sophisticated air bag technology or whether they stick with cheap, low-tech air bags that will be less protective in higher-speed crashes. (In 1984 GM told DOT it could meet a 25 mph with friendly interiors, and without air bags.)

As we have seen in issue after issue for decades now, the automakers have bobbed and weaved to avoid meeting a challenging air bag standard and to save costs. In this rulemaking, it’s the 25 mph crash test. If the 25 mph test is used, air bags could be produced that would not protect occupants in serious crashes.

I cannot overstate the importance of this decision. Lives are literally at stake. The DOT recently estimated that somewhere between 214 and 397 lives will be lost each year in a passenger fleet designed to meet a 25 mph test as opposed to a 30 mph test. We must have the safest standard possible. And we believe that only the 30 mph crash test will provide that.

The auto industry has not provided any data to back up its position.

Yet there is plenty of real world experience with 80 million vehicles made between 1987 and 1999 with air bags that meet a 30 mph test that have experienced 3 million inflations. If the automakers think vehicles meeting the 30 mph test are so dangerous, then they should immediately notify all owners and recall those cars. Yet, they have not done so.

In 1997, reacting to concerns about air bag deaths of children and small adults in low-speed crashes, automakers depowered air bags. The industry now claims air bags would have to be repowered to meet a 30 mph standard. Again, not true. Virtually all of the DOT crash tests of recent models with depowered air bags pass the 30 mph male unbelted crash test. And these vehicles do not yet contain the newer technologies available to meet the advanced air bag standard.

In addition, as DOT has emphasized, future compliance tests should be representative of real world crashes and now we have dramatically increased speeds. Over half of all fatalities occur in barrier equivalent crashes of 30 mph or above. This standard will not be revised again for years. And the industry has plenty of lead time under the rule.

There are numerous technologies available to manufacturers to protect smaller occupants in both low-speed and high-speed crashes without injury, such as dual-inflation air bags; inflation rates that are adjusted to the position of the occupant; pedal extenders for short drivers; deep dish steering columns, suppression, improved fold patterns, lighter fabrics and softer dashboard covers. And much more.

We have the technology to make safer air bag systems. Let’s not buy into the same old tired industry line. This time, let’s do it right.