WASHINGTON - Federal officials, stung by the outcry over deaths and injuries caused by front airbags, are challenging carmakers to prove that side airbags are safe before the devices become commonplace.
'We are determined to not allow a repeat of what we experienced with frontal airbags,' said Philip Recht, deputy administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
Recht, who will leave the agency late this month, said NHTSA's precautionary approach 'is somewhat a result of lessons learned.'
Industry and safety officials were caught off guard when reports surfaced several years ago of deaths, mostly of children and small women, from front-airbag deployments, usually in low-speed crashes.
Now, before a side-airbag crisis occurs, NHTSA has scheduled a public meeting on the safety of the devices for April 19. The agency has met privately with manufacturers, has requested results of their safety tests and has conducted some tests of its own.
CONCERN FOR CHILDREN
NHTSA spokesman Rae Tyson said agency officials are particularly concerned about out-of-position children, those who may not be belted properly and who may lean on side airbag covers.
Agency researchers also are said to be most skeptical about whether the benefits of side airbags in rear seats outweigh risks. Currently, only Audi, BMW and Mercedes-Benz offer such airbags.
Earlier, in an unusual move, NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez asked the chiefs of 21 car companies to affirm personally that the new equipment they are putting in their vehicles is safe. Only three responded.
Front airbags, for driver and passenger, are required by law. Side airbags are not. NHTSA says about three-fourths of all vehicle manufacturers offer side airbags in at least some models.
The safety debate is complicated by the fact that side airbags have so many different configurations. They deploy from door panels, seat backs and body pillars. They are in the form of bags, tubes and curtains. Some protect only the head or the chest. Others try to do both.
In a coincidental development, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety last week released the results of tests of side airbags in Lincoln Town Cars.
The institute, a research arm of the insurance industry, found that a Lincoln with a side airbag deploying from the seat back to head and chest level provided 'impressive' protection for a crash dummy over a Lincoln without the airbag. Researchers slid the cars sideways at 18 mph into a pole.
Institute Vice President Julie Rochman said the tests were a part of the organization's routine evaluation of new safety devices and were not timed for the NHTSA public meeting.
James Walker, president of JCW Consulting of Ann Arbor, Mich., a persistent airbag critic, said NHTSA deserves credit for recent initiatives on side airbags. But he questioned the wisdom of allowing the devices in the first place without rules or performance criteria.
'I don't find that acceptable at all,' Walker said.
NHTSA's Recht said new technology is appearing so fast that 'there is just no way we can be ahead of the curve.'
Consequently, he said, the agency is trying to impress on manufacturers their responsibility to guarantee that new devices create no new risks.
In response to the deaths caused by front airbags, NHTSA in 1997 adopted rules that allow manufacturers to install depowered airbags and let selected motorists get on-off switches.