WASHINGTON - Major automakers have agreed to adopt a voluntary international standard for testing side airbags in an attempt to ensure they do not pose unreasonable risks, especially to improperly restrained children.
The agreement, however, may not be enough to keep regulators from imposing rules on side airbags even though their installation is not required by law.
'It's premature to say that we're satisfied with what's out there,' said Robert Shelton, associate administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.
'It's certainly good that they are doing something. Whether that's the best way to go, I can't say right now. We have to go back ourselves and decide whether we think that is aggressive enough,' he said.
ALLIANCE IS DRIVING FORCE
The main endorsement for a voluntary standard came from the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, representing the former Big 3 and six overseas-based car companies.
Vann Wilber, top safety official at the alliance, said the standard, which could be completed in a year, would provide for testing with a variety of dummy sizes. 'A lot of work has already been done. If there is some fine tweaking to it, fine, let's do it now. But industry is committed to that,' he said.
The remarks followed a public meeting on Monday, April 19, organized by NHTSA to determine whether automakers are gathering sufficient evidence of side airbag safety before installing them in new cars and trucks.
The agency released preliminary results of tests conducted by NHTSA and Canada's transportation department. Officials said they found evidence that most side airbags tested pose some risk to children, but those in the Mercedes E class were the most threatening. DaimlerChrysler executives disagreed.
'We did not get the same results as NHTSA,' said Sue Cischke, DaimlerChrysler vice president for vehicle certification, compliance and safety affairs.
Ricardo Martinez, NHTSA administrator, said at the outset of the session that the government does not have the resources to check all of the safety technology that is being developed, and it does not want to impede innovation. But he also warned, 'If we see safety risks materializing, especially to children, we will be quick to intervene.'
While there have been no reports of serious injuries or deaths from side airbags, agency officials acknowledge they are being extra cautious because of their experience with front airbags, which are required by law.
After reports spread in 1996 and 1997 of airbag deployments killing people, especially children, in minor crashes, the agency scrambled to adopt rules allowing manufacturers to install lower-powered airbags and permitting some motorists to get off-on switches.
CRITICS SEE PROBLEMS
Some industry critics complained about the carmakers' plan to adopt the voluntary testing procedure for side airbags being developed by the International Organization on Standards, or ISO.
Joan Claybrook, president of a group called Public Citizen, said motorists will have little confidence in a standard developed in secret without public comment. And she said some manufacturers may choose not to participate.
Another group, the Center for Auto Safety, petitioned NHTSA to include so-called out-of-position child dummies in the side-impact crash tests manufacturers must pass to sell their vehicles.