to Test Side Air Bags Unveiled
Automakers Propose Voluntary Industrywide Program
June 2, 2000
ARLINGTON, Va. (AP) -- Automakers
have proposed voluntary side air-bag tests aimed at preventing the deaths and
injuries that have occurred with some air bags mounted in the steering wheel
The federal government requires
front air bags on all vehicles and has standards for testing them. But there
are no government tests for side air bags, which are standard on some luxury
vehicles and optional on many cheaper models.
Testing of side air bags
varies by automaker. The plan released Thursday would create a voluntary industry-wide
Critics say the government
should develop standards, administer the tests and impose penalties. They note
that the industry proposal does not require automakers to conduct the tests
or report the results.
'A phantom standard'
It is "a phantom standard,"
said Robert Sanders, whose 7-year-old daughter was killed in 1995 when a front
air bag deployed in a low-speed crash.
"There is no way that the
public will know that the bags comply with the standard, and even if the automakers
test to the standard, there is no remedy," said Sanders, director of Parents
for Safer Air Bags. "They don't have to recall the thing or fix it."
Rob Strassburger of the
Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents most automakers, said
market forces would compel companies to test their systems.
"This is a very competitive
industry," he said. "We will be watching each other."
The industry is proposing
tests to measure how side air bags protect dummies meant to represent 3- and
6-year-old children and a small adult.
The dummies will be placed
in 12 positions, including leaning against a door and lying across the seat.
One test calls for the 3-year-old child dummy to be placed in the "peekaboo"
position -- in front, but turned toward the back with its head between the door
and side of the front seat.
"I would venture that most,
if not all side air bags that are out there would not comply with these standards,"
said Adrian Lund, a research engineer with the Insurance Institute for Highway
Safety and chairman of the industry group that came up with the tests.
The industry hopes the tests
will help avoid problems that have occurred with front air bags. In some cases,
the bags have deployed with such force that children and small adults have been
killed or seriously injured.
No side-bag fatalities
At least 158 deaths since
1990 have been blamed on front air bags, but they are also credited with saving
at least 5,000 lives.
The National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration (NHTSA) investigated 50 crashes with side air-bag deployments
and found no fatalities were caused by the air bags. The only serious injury
blamed on deployment was a 76-year-old man who broke three ribs when his car
was broadsided by another vehicle.
But federal authorities
say their testing shows side air bags could kill or seriously injure young children,
especially those sleeping or leaning against the door when the bag inflates.
The aim of the automakers'
plan -- which is in draft form and could be revised after public comment and
federal review -- is to have a risk no higher than 5 percent that a vehicle
occupant could be severely injured or killed by an inflating side air bag.
The voluntary tests are
an experiment for NHTSA, which normally imposes its own standards instead of
allowing the auto industry to write the rules.
Dr. Ricardo Martinez, chief
of NHTSA until October, had said air bag technology was evolving rapidly and
that he wanted to encourage safety innovation that otherwise could be stifled
by the slow-moving federal rules process.
Some consumer groups complain
they were kept out of the closed-door meetings at which the proposal was crafted
and say the government should issue a safety standard that has the force of
"You cannot trust the industry
to regulate itself," said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety, pointing
to problems with seat belts, trunk locks and front air bags that required government
intervention. "Industry simply cuts corners, and children pay with their lives."