WASHINGTON - Lawsuit-wary dealers are not the only obstacles to installing on-off airbag switches.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that vehicle manufacturers do not have switches available for about half the airbag-equipped vehicles.
A rule allowing switches for qualified motorists was unveiled last November, and took effect in January. It followed an uproar over deployments that injured and killed people, especially children.
In a related development, the federal highway bill signed last week by President Clinton contains a revised schedule for development and implementation of so-called smart airbags - those that would be able to adapt the level of protection to different kinds of crashes and different types of occupants.
NEW RULES IN 2000
Under the new schedule, NHTSA is to write preliminary rules on smart airbags by Sept. 1. Final rules are due March 1, 2000, and the technology would be required in all vehicles by Sept. 1, 2006.
Originally, the final rules were required by mid-1999. The final installation target is unchanged, but manufacturers could earn credit for early compliance.
The new version also gives NHTSA more leeway in deciding how to test advanced airbag designs.
As for on-off switches for current airbags, NHTSA Deputy Administrator Philip Recht stopped just short of chastising some carmakers. 'We certainly look forward to the point in time when they are widely available,' he said. 'Manufacturers have to do what it takes to get the parts available as soon as possible.' There is no legal obligation, however, to supply the switches.
Availability varies by company, NHTSA records show. General Motors has switches available for almost all models. Chrysler Corp. has them out for only a handful. American Honda Motor Co. Inc. will not have switches until fall. Ford Motor Co., Toyota Motor Sales U.S.A. Inc. and Nissan Motor Corp. U.S.A. are somewhere in between.
A Chrysler spokeswoman said her company is following the schedule it planned all along.
A Ford spokeswoman said Ford was not experiencing unexpected delays. She said Ford is following its plan to get switches out first for high-volume family vehicles. She indicated Ford's decision to mount switches in dashboards requires additional engineering time.
But a GM spokesman said that even though GM switches are in glove boxes, unique wiring harnesses on about 150 models required individualized design and testing for each one, and GM completed the task.
As of June 6, NHTSA had approved switches for 30,594 motorists, but had received just 1,065 forms indicating installations were done - 812 on GM products.
Many dealers and garages decline the work, at least in part because of liability concerns.
NHTSA rules authorize the switches for people with certain medical conditions, those who cannot sit at least 10 inches from the steering wheel and motorists who must transport small children in the front seat.