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  • Feds Ready New Air Bag Rules
    Testing Seeks to End Deaths From Inflating Devices

    March 1, 2000

    WASHINGTON (AP) -- The government will require air bags to protect a "family" of dummies in a new series of federal tests designed to prevent nearly all deaths from the inflating bags, according to final regulations expected in March.

    The new testing is broad in scope, covering how air bags inflate during serious automobile crashes as well as checking how they inflate in stationary tests when child dummies are positioned close to the instrument panel where the air bag comes out.

    Congress directed the Department of Transportation to make the regulations final by today. That deadline is slipping, government officials say, but most of the plan is already known.

    The auto industry agrees with most of the plan, but the regulations have been delayed because of heavy lobbying by the industry and many other groups to remove one controversial crash test.

    Blamed for 150 deaths

    Air bags have been blamed for at least 150 deaths -- mainly young, unbelted children and some shorter women -- in low-speed crashes that the victims otherwise should have survived, according to government data.

    Transportation Department officials say they crafted the tests to certify air bag systems in future cars that avoid up to 95 percent of bag-caused deaths while maintaining their benefits in saving lives in high-speed crashes.

    To give the auto industry sufficient lead time, the new regulations would be phased in for cars built between 2003 and 2006.

    The new tests require adding a female dummy to the male dummy being used, along with child dummies representing an infant, a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old.

    Modifying triggers

    Some of the tests are intended to ensure the bags either do not inflate when children are present or inflate with much less energy so children are not harmed. In these stationary tests, the air bag is fired after children are placed in various positions on the seat or close to the instrument panel. In some of the tests, children are properly restrained in child seats.

    A much lower level of inflation is achieved with so-called dual-stage air bags that have started coming onto the market. Weight sensors in the seat and other technologies that detect children would suppress air bags.

    Previous government crash testing for air-bag certification required only a dummy representing an average adult male, prompting criticism that air bags were best tailored to adult men and were sometimes inflating too forcefully for children or small-statured women.

    The new plan also requires crashing the front of vehicles into a solid wall to ensure the air bags will inflate with enough force to cushion a dummy representing an adult male and a dummy representing a slender female.

    Equipment detects force of impact

    Another test crashes only about half the front of a vehicle into a softer barrier to make sure air bag sensors detect a more moderate crash and do not fire air bags too late to protect belted female drivers.

    The most heavily publicized and controversial part of the air bag regulations would require the auto industry to return to a severe crash test that ensures air bags inflate forcefully enough to cushion an unbelted adult male as a car crashes into a solid wall at 30 mph.

    The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made that test optional in 1997, and automakers quickly installed less forceful air bags in cars. Government data shows that air-bag deaths have declined sharply for models since that year.

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