Vehicle safety standards expanded to include air bags U.S. automakers to install upgraded devices this fall

July 31, 1998|By CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration expanded head-protection standards yesterday to permit innovative air bags that some automakers have already installed.

Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said the agency had responded to the industry's voluntary improvements to vehicle safety by re-examining head-protection rules, scheduled to take effect in September, that required additional padding on the roof and roof pillars of new cars.

Now the rules will include the air bags, in the hope that more carmakers will install them.

"Today's amendment enables new car manufacturers to bring lifesaving technology quickly to motorists -- saving lives and preventing injuries," Slater said.

"This new head protection system provides even greater protection from head injury in the unfortunate event of a side-impact crash."

Last year, BMW began selling its 7-series sedans with an air bag that deploys from the roof above the front doors and from within the front roof pillars.

Mercedes-Benz will begin offering its E-class sedans next month with a curtain-style, roof-mounted air bag.

Like a model already offered by Volvo, it will extend over the window beside the driver and front passenger, keeping them in the vehicle, buffering their heads from outside objects and shielding them from spraying glass.

U.S. automakers will install similar devices in their cars with the new fall models.

The new air bags inflate to look like air mattresses and are designed to deploy quickly and remain inflated for six seconds to help limit injuries in side crashes and car rollovers.

Fred Heiler, a Mercedes-Benz spokesman, said the air bags are the only safety measures that could keep a head from going through the side window in a crash.

"The padding would provide a lot of protection in case your head happens to hit the ceiling in a rollover," Heiler said. "But what if your head goes through the side window?"

In preliminary tests, Heiler said, forces acting on the head of crash-test dummies were reduced by 90 percent with the curtain-type air bag.

About 2,400 people have been killed and 60,000 injured in crashes that caused their heads to strike pillars, side rails, headers and other upper-interior car components, according to the NHTSA.

It estimates that the new padding and air bags will save up to 1,200 lives, prevent up to 975 injuries and provide an annual economic benefit of $900 million.

Pub Date: 7/31/98

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