WASHINGTON - Want to see a side airbag slam the head of a child-sized crash dummy so hard that the whole body catapults out of its seat? Just go to the Web site of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration and click on 'Consumer Advisory' and then 'Real NHTSA Videos.'
The graphic video is just one part of a media blitz the agency launched on Wednesday, Oct. 13, to warn consumers about the potential dangers of side airbags to children who may be too close when the airbags deploy.
In addition, in letters to carmakers, outgoing NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez asked them to disconnect side airbags in rear seats before shipping vehicles 'unless the manufacturer has determined that those side airbags pose no significant risk to children.'
Automakers were perplexed by NHTSA's actions. In July, they accepted its challenge to develop voluntarily industrywide tests and standards to ensure side-airbag safety.
'It would have been helpful if we had seen the letters, which were given to the manufacturers today (Oct. 14), yesterday when the media had it,' said Barry Felrice, senior manager of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler.
He and other industry officials said they favor keeping consumers informed of airbag risks but didn't see a reason for the sudden and dramatic alerts about side airbags. NHTSA has not recorded any serious injury to a child from a side airbag.
Some in the industry suggested privately that Martinez, whose resignation was effective Friday, Oct. 15, wanted to leave with 'a dramatic flourish,' said Gloria Bergquist, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
'We were disappointed that he waited until he was putting on his coat and hat and filling his briefcase to issue this,' she said.
Martinez said it is true he wanted to issue fresh warnings about side airbags before his departure, but he said he was motivated by consumer inquiries and by internal NHTSA analysis.
Industry officials were divided over whether NHTSA's announcements will hurt sales of vehicles with side airbags, which, unlike front airbags, aren't required by law.
'People are convinced side airbags are going to be beneficial,' said George Kirchoff, president of the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council, which represents airbag makers.
Spokesmen for Mercedes-Benz USA Inc. and General Motors said side airbags in rear seats are safe and they will not disconnect them.
BMW of North America Inc. already waits to activate the rear airbags until cars are delivered to customers who want them. Audi of America, which also offers rear side airbags, had not yet formed an opinion on the letter but said disconnected airbags can't save lives.
Bergquist said the industry working group that is developing tests and standards still plans to finish its work by the end of this year.