WASHINGTON - Lobbyists believe the Clinton administration is looking for a compromise answer to the tough airbag decision it faces, but automakers say merely postponing a faulty crash test requirement won't satisfy them.
'This is a political decision. It's not a technical one,' said Vann Wilber, director of vehicle safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
The unresolved issue is whether airbag systems should be tested for protection of an unbelted mid-sized adult male dummy in a 30-mph crash into a rigid barrier.
Eyeing the options
Because automakers already have agreed to an array of new regulations governing advanced airbag designs but vigorously oppose one test, the administration may adopt the bulk of the rules by the March 1 deadline and either phase in or postpone the test, some lobbyists say.
But Wilber said carmakers have to plan vehicles years in advance. So merely putting off a bad test for a few years does the industry no good.
Likewise, Barry Felrice, senior manager of regulatory affairs for DaimlerChrysler, said there ought to be some evidence of a benefit for consumers before automakers are required even to phase in a test they believe would create a serious risk for some vehicle occupants.
Charles Hurley, executive director of the National Safety Council, suggested another possibility. He called on the administration to adopt all the rules by the March 1 deadline except for the disputed crash test. Then the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration could conduct separate rulemaking proceedings on this one question.
With this last option, the industry would at least have the opportunity to keep making its case. It is that the unbelted male dummy test would force automakers to install overly aggressive airbags that would again increase risks for some, especially children and small women.
Automakers, backed by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety and the National Safety Council, got a fresh chance to make the case last week - an inadvertent gift of safety advocate Joan Claybrook and her allies.
After writing an airbag letter to President Clinton and running major newspaper ads, alliance officials said they were looking for a fresh way to publicize their argument.
On Thursday, Feb. 17, Claybrook, president of the group Public Citizen, held a news conference along with leaders of Consumers Union, the Center for Auto Safety and Parents for Safer Airbags.
Their point was to object to the 'misleading and self-serving information' spread by the industry and to accuse automakers of only wanting to make 'cut-rate' airbags.
But the alliance quickly countered with its own news event and, at least on this day, the last word.