Rule change might save many lives Head-shield side bags currently prohibited

November 02, 1997|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

RUCKERSVILLE, Va. -- Twenty miles per hour is too slow to win a Soap Box Derby, but it's enough to kill you.

Researchers at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety here proved that last week when a new BMW 528i was rammed sideways into a pole about the size of a telephone pole at 20 mph.

Belted into the driver's seat was a crash test dummy hooked up to electronic equipment designed to show what would happen if a real person was behind the wheel.

The results were sobering.

The pole pushed about 2 feet into the passenger compartment at the driver side front door. The dummy's head whipped out the window and struck the pole with nearly five times the force required to cause a skull fracture. In the real world, death would have resulted.

"Unbelieveable," said L. Robert Shelton III, of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

"This shows that when you hit something at 20 miles per hour that doesn't move, it can be a very serious crash, a lot more serious than most people would imagine," said Shelton, who helps set auto safety standards.

Earlier, the institute had crashed another BMW, and, although the damage to the car was just as severe, the injuries to the test dummy were not life-threatening.

"This was a survivable event," said Brian O'Neill, president of the institute, as he poked his head into the driver's compartment.

"You're going to be shaken up, but you don't have a serious head injury."

The difference: The second test was performed on a car equipped with a new air bag system designed to protect people's heads in side-impact collisions.

The BMW air bag also helps prevent drivers from being ejected. It is, however, a system that is prohibited by current federal regulations.

The new air bag is tube-shaped and about the diameter of a grapefruit. It stretches diagonally from a point where the driver side window meets the dash to a point in the roof just behind the column between the front and back windows.

The bag deploys in less time than the blink of an eye, forming an energy-absorbing barrier between the driver's head and the pole intruding into the car.

For each test, the dummy's head had been coated with wet blue paint so that researchers could easily tell where the head was struck during the crash. In the first test -- the one without the air bag -- there was a circle of blue paint on the yellow pole about the diameter of a softball.

"That told us the head made a severe hit into the pole," O'Neill said.

"Today," he said, referring to the car with the safety system, "the paint is on the air bag. There's none on the pole. You can see the bag was in place before the head was able to make contact with the pole. This says that today's cars, with the proper equipment, can protect people in very serious side-impact accidents, including those when a car is struck by another vehicle."

Side impacts account for about 20 percent of all auto accidents annually, but they result in a higher percentage of fatalities because they involve more head injuries.

The federal government estimates that if head protection systems like that on the test car were on all cars, about 600 deaths from head injuries could be prevented each year.

The BMW air bag is produced by Simula Inc. in Phoenix, Ariz. The technology was originally designed for the military, according to James Saunders, president of Simula.

"It's used on helicopters to help protect the pilot and passengers from injury in emergency situations when the chopper makes a hard landing," Saunders said.

He said several other automakers are considering Simula's air bags, but he declined to identify them.

Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are already working on similar head protection systems. But BMW's is the first in production. Its system is standard equipment on its 1998 model 5 and 7 series sedans.

BMW's efforts might be futile, said O'Neill, unless the federal government changes its proposed auto safety rules.

The institute, a nonprofit research group funded by more than 300 auto insurers, is lobbying Washington for such a change.

Without that, Adrian K. Lund, senior vice president of the institute, told NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez in a letter last week, the introduction of "advanced technology that has the potential to provide vehicle occupants with even greater head protection than is mandated by the standards" would be discouraged.

To meet the new standards, said Shelton, head of the NHTSA rule-making division, most auto makers are adding interior padding to areas where people's heads are likely to hit in crashes.

Josef Haberl, head of vehicle safety for BMW, said such padding interferes with the deployment of the side-impact air bag. The company wants to eliminate the padding in favor of using an air bag.

If the rules aren't changed, O'Neill said, "this would be a case where you have superior technology made by an American company used in cars in other parts of the world but not allowed in the U.S."

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