Safer Car Standards

November 11, 1990

After much wrangling, the U.S. Transportation Department has come up with new standards to make cars less deadly in side crashes. Complaints about the cost of strengthening side panels and beefing up interior padding slowed implementation, but finally the standard-makers won.

What was won is still being debated. Chrysler Corp., first marketer of successful air bags, considers the regulations a positive step. And so they are. General Motors argued strenuously over the dummy the federal testers were using to develop the crash-worthiness standards, but came around after Transportation chief Samuel Skinner talked to Robert Stempel, now chairman of GM. Ford, arguing that the new rules would require substantial engineering changes, said the new rules might make it harder to boost gas mileage.

What we're talking about here is a safety change that could save 500 lives a year. By the time the standards are fully implemented in 1997, that is. Meanwhile, 8,000 people a year are dying in side crashes. Another 24,000 individuals each year suffer serious injuries.

Some critics think the new standards don't make much sense without corresponding standards to improve protection against head and neck injuries. They've got a point. Five hundred lives saved out of 8,000 deaths a year is still the small part of the wedge. Putting in place the head restraints and other safety items that can cut the highway death toll further must be a clear priority. Backing and filling by manufacturers trying to avoid the extra cost must meet with a stern frown, from the regulators and the public.


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