White House Caves in to Auto Industry Campaign of Fear

May 5, 2000

White House Caves in to Auto Industry Campaign of Fear

Industry Pushed for Weak Air Bag Standard to Avoid SUV Redesign; Strong Air Bags Needed Most in Higher-Speed Crashes

WASHINGTON, DC — By overturning the U.S. Department of Transportation’s recommendation for a 30 mph crash test for air bags, the White House has caved in to a campaign of fear and subterfuge mounted by the automobile industry, which sought a weak crash test to avoid redesigning its highly profitable SUVs, consumer safety groups said today.

“The auto industry traded on the tragic deaths of children and others killed by air bags to scare the White House into issuing a weak 25 mph standard,” said Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook. “This is engineering malpractice. We need a 30 mph standard because people are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in higher-speed crashes, and this is where air bags have saved the most lives. But the auto companies cynically lobbied for a weak air bag standard to avoid redesigning SUVs and light trucks that do not comply with the 30 mph test.”

The DOT itself has estimated that between 200 and 400 more people will die on the highways if vehicles have air bags that meet only a 25 mph air bag standard, as opposed to a 30 mph standard.

Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety, Consumers Union, Parents for Safer Air Bags, the Consumer Federation of America and the Trauma Foundation are united in maintaining that a 25 mph test is inadequate and that a 30 mph crash test is needed. Unlike other organizations that support a 25 mph standard, none of these groups receive funding from auto companies.

“The White House has placed politics over safety in selling out the American public to profiteering automakers who turned their backs on safer, dual-inflation air bags, which would have saved many of the 158 people killed to date,” said Clarence Ditlow, executive director for the Center for Auto Safety.

Added Jack Gillis, public affairs director for the Consumer Federation of America, “It’s just appalling that the White House was hoodwinked by the auto industry. Thousands more people will die needlessly on our roads because the White House overruled government safety experts at the request of the car companies.”

The industry has been telling the news media and the public that it needs a 25 mph crash test — rather than the more rigorous 30 mph test — to avoid further bag-related deaths and injuries. The fact is, the auto industry for many years has had ample technology to avoid air bag-related injuries and deaths that occurred in low-speed crashes. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, designed air bag systems that have never resulted in air bag-related deaths. So this is not the true issue.

At the same time the industry has peddled fear to the public about low-speed crashes, it has falsely argued in documents submitted to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) that the 30 mph crash test would force it to increase the power in air bags, increasing the risk of injury to children and small-statured adults in higher-speed crashes. Again, this is incorrect. The fact is, virtually all of the air bags in the 80 million cars on the road today, including those “depowered” since model year 1998, meet the 30 mph standard, and the auto industry has presented no evidence that these air bags are dangerous in high-speed crashes. If these vehicles made since 1988 are really as dangerous as the industry claims, they ought to be recalled immediately, Claybrook said.

The industry’s strategy is clearly designed to avoid the real issue — that if a 30 mph standard were set, the industry would have to make major structural changes to SUVs and light trucks. These vehicles have never had to meet a driver- and passenger-side 30 mph air bag crash test. The manufacturers had the option of equipping them with automatic belts or air bags until the fall of 1997, at which time SUVs were to be equipped with air bags that met a 30 mph test. Before the 30 mph air bag requirement took effect, however, the auto companies persuaded the government to give them the temporary option to “depower” air bags because air bag-induced deaths were climbing. This was also misleading, because it was poor air bag design, not meeting the 30 mph test, that led to the deaths. Thus the air bags in SUVs must pass only a “sled” test, which is 46 percent less stringent than the 30 mph barrier crash test and doesn t even test the front structure of the SUV.

SUVs, which are built on truck chassis, have stiffer front ends than cars. In a crash, the SUV’s front structure, as designed, does not absorb the impact as well as a car’s front end, and much more of the crash energy is transferred to the SUV’s occupants. NHTSA tests show that many SUVs perform poorly in crash tests and that their air bags often cannot meet a 30 mph test.

If the government had retained the 30 mph air bag standard in this pending rule, manufacturers would not have installed air bags powerful enough to make up for the deficiencies in the SUVs front structure because these air bags could be excessively powerful for SUV occupants. The only solution, then, would be to redesign the SUVs so their front ends absorb energy in a crash in the same way cars do. This would make SUVs safer for vehicles they collide with as well.

The auto industry has indicated it is planning to revise the structure of SUVs, but the proposed changes have nothing to do with redesigning front ends to absorb more energy in a crash. Rather, the changes are small and concern height compatibility with cars, not how SUVs absorb energy.

It is also important to note that 55 percent of the lives saved by air bags each year have been in crashes equivalent to a 25 mph barrier crash or higher, and two-thirds of those occupants were unbelted. More than 60 percent of fatalities today involve people who do not buckle up.

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Statement by Public Citizen President Joan Claybrook

Background Information on Air Bag Controversy

Letter to Nancy McFadden, DOT General Counsel

Letter to DOT Secretary Rodney Slater