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  • Plan 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 and dashboard.

    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 program.

    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."

    Toddler dummies

    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 found

    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.

    Encouraging innovation?

    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 law.

    "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."

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