WASHINGTON - The National Transportation Safety Board last week left the auto industry largely off the hook in issuing 25 recommendations aimed at reducing highway fatalities and deaths and injuries from airbags.
Despite one dramatic proposal that automakers install crash-data recorders in all new vehicles - similar to the so-called 'black boxes' used in aircraft - the board largely sought to correct Americans' driving habits, not technology.
The key themes: buckle up, and bar children from the front seat.
It called for the states to pass laws requiring children under 13 to always ride in the back seats of vehicles that have them. Such laws already exist in Europe and Australia.
It also urged all states to pass laws that would enable police to pull over and ticket motorists specifically for not wearing seat belts, a statute that only 13 states now have.
Such laws would save 10,000 lives a year, the board estimated.
Industry officials liked the message.
'The NTSB recognizes that to-day's airbag issue is less about technology and more about behavior,' said Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, the Big 3's trade group.
Even recommendations to other government agencies will have little immediate impact on existing efforts to overcome airbag problems, officials said. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, for example, was urged to do a far better job of collecting information about seat belt use and airbag performance.
'These recommendations are all consistent with work we are doing on smart airbags,' said Philip Recht, deputy administrator of NHTSA. 'I don't see any inconsistencies.'
The five-member transportation board is an independent agency that investigates accidents and safety issues and makes recommendations to other government entities and the private sector, including automakers. But it has no regulatory authority of its own.
The panel, best known for its investigation of airliner crashes, said last week it had turned its attention to highway accidents not only because of the public outcry over airbag-caused deaths and injuries, especially to children, but also because of the overall death toll on the roads.
'We have the equivalent of a ValuJet (crash) every day in this country,' said board member George Black, referring to highway deaths, which number 42,000 a year.
Meanwhile, NHTSA has determined that airbag deployments have killed 67 people since 1990, including 40 children.
On airbags, the board urged carmakers to consider raising the threshold speed at which the devices deploy so that they would not open in minor accidents. The bags now can be triggered in accidents as low as 10 mph.
George Parker, vice president for engineering at the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers, said car companies are not necessarily opposed to the idea.
But if deployments occur only at higher accident speeds, he cautioned, then engineers might be compelled to make bags open more forcefully, negating recent moves toward lower-powered bags.
Manufacturers are free to set their own deployment threshold as long as vehicles meet the minimum safety standard of protecting an average-sized, unbelted adult in a 30-mph frontal crash.
SHOTS AT NCAP
The board also backed the auto industry's argument that NHTSA's current crash tests, under the New-Car Assessment Program, may not be useful, and may even be counterproductive.
The board said the NCAP ratings, based on crashing vehicles into barriers, may have compelled manufacturers to install excessively powerful airbags, and may not give consumers accurate safety information. The board said NHTSA should consider replacing the crash tests.
NHTSA already has asked for public comment on whether vehicles should be given overall crashworthiness ratings. But Recht defended NCAP as 'a very popular consumer information program that has been duplicated around the world.'
The transportation board did not specifically address two of the most controversial questions surrounding airbags - whether any motorist who wants airbags disconnected should be allowed to do so and whether the basic safety standard for airbag performance should be rewritten.
Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the AAMA, said the car companies will have to give the safety board's recommendation on black boxes considerable thought.
'What do we need to know to make vehicles safer?' asked Felrice rhetorically. 'And who is going to have access to it? These are just some of the questions.'