- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 12, 2004


Safety standards proposed yesterday to protect people in side-impact crashes are intended to save as many as 1,000 lives a year and reduce head injuries, auto regulators said.

The plan, which could be in place by 2009, goes beyond the current standards that require protection only for people’s torsos.

Automakers will decide for themselves how to comply. The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a trade group representing 10 automakers, estimates the required safety changes will add between $200 and $500 to the cost of a vehicle.

“While it’s very expensive, this is a rule that will have tremendous benefits,” said Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.

Side-impact crashes kill about 10,000 people annually, or about one-quarter of all deaths on the nation’s roads.

Vehicles will have to meet a basic level of safety to be on the road. Consumers will be able to see how well the vehicles performed on the agency’s Web site.

“Quite often the person struck in the side had been doing everything right: driving sober, wearing a safety belt and going through a green light, only to get rammed in the side by a driver who ran a red light or ignored a stop sign,” said Mr. Runge, a trauma surgeon.

“We want to help those Americans who are doing everything right,” he said.

After taking public comment, the agency plans to issue a final rule by the end of 2005 and give automakers four years to comply.

A spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said automakers have begun upgrading safety voluntarily to improve side-impact crash protection by 2009.

“We’re already engineering side head-protection technologies into vehicles on a more aggressive schedule than NHTSA calls for,” Eron Shosteck said.

Mr. Runge said he is satisfied with the industry’s progress but wants to ensure automakers can meet a tougher standard.

“What we’re trying to do with this proposal is to raise the bar slightly,” he said.

Government crash tests measure how well a vehicle protects the lower body of a 5-foot-11-inch, 160-pound dummy in a 38.5 mph impact when another vehicle hits it from the side.

Under the proposal, the government would add a second test that simulates what happens when a vehicle leaves the road and its side hits a tree or other fixed object. This test will also measure injuries to a 4-foot-11-inch, 98-pound female dummy.

For the first time, all tests would measure head damage. This is significant because people in cars are at high risk of head injury when they are struck by sport utility vehicles and other vehicles with higher bumpers.

In side-impact crashes of light trucks into cars, the occupants of the cars are 20 times more likely to be killed, the government says.

Sally Greenberg, a product-safety lawyer with Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports, wanted regulators to change its current test to better reflect side crashes between cars and SUVs. She said the agency should require side air bags that protect the head.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance-industry group that does research and crash tests, has found that side air bags protecting the head reduce the number of deaths by up to 45 percent, while those protecting just the chest reduce deaths by 11 percent.

Twenty-seven percent of model year 2004 vehicles have standard side air bags that protect the head, while an additional 21 percent offer those air bags as an option, according to the institute.

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