NHTSA to put forth new guidelines on protection against side crashes

Rules would require carmakers to phase in curtain air bags

May 12, 2004|By R. Alonso-Zaldivar | R. Alonso-Zaldivar,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON - A federal auto safety agency will propose new requirements today to give drivers and passengers more protection against devastating head injuries in side-impact crashes, government and industry officials said.

The regulations would, in effect, require automakers to phase in side curtain air bags as standard equipment in new vehicles by mandating tougher crash tests and new injury limits for test dummies, industry and safety groups said.

The new safety measures would save 700 to 1,000 lives a year when fully phased in, according to an analysis by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which is proposing the changes. It would take several years for the federal mandate to be fully implemented, but the industry is already making side air bags available on most new models.

Side impact crashes - with other vehicles or with trees and utility poles - kill about 9,800 people a year, accounting for nearly one-fourth of traffic deaths.

A study last summer by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that side air bags that protect the head reduced the risk of death by 45 percent for passenger-car drivers in crashes in which the cars were struck on the driver's side.

Several types of side air bags are in use, offering varying degrees of protection for the head and torso.

Side curtain air bags are rapidly becoming the technology of choice, partly because they also offer protection in rollover crashes. The curtains are mounted in the vehicle's roof rail and anchored near the windshield and the roof pillars. When they deploy, they fill the space between the driver or a passenger and the side window.

They are usually installed in conjunction with smaller air bags in the side door that protect the torso.

Side curtains can be particularly valuable for people in passenger cars broadsided by taller, stiffer sport utility vehicles or pickup trucks.

"When you are hit on the side, the only way to protect your head is to put something in the way between you and what is coming in," said Adrian Lund, chief operating officer of the Insurance Institute.

Side curtains also protect SUV occupants, especially those riding in increasingly popular smaller models. In rollover crashes, they can help keep people from being flung out of vehicles that flip.

"This [safety standard] would have benefits across the board," Lund said.

NHTSA's proposal will require automakers to conduct tests using a dummy representing a small woman. Car companies would also have to provide protection for front- and back-seat occupants.

Though available on more than half of 2004 models, side air bags are not always standard equipment, especially on economy models. Many consumers are unwilling to spend an extra $200 to $500 to buy them.

"Some people would prefer to choose something they can use every day, such as a six-pack CD changer," said David Champion, director of automotive testing for Consumers Union. "The problem is, you may only use side air bags once, but that one time may save your life."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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