WASHINGTON -- Insurance industry researchers once again are using the power of the press to influence vehicle design, this time to beef up protection against side-impact crashes.
Automakers, who have chafed at such pressure in the past, acknowledge that they have little choice but to take steps, including installation of more side airbags that protect heads, to satisfy the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The research organization for auto insurers last week gained widespread coverage for the first results of its tough new side-impact crash test.
"To receive a good rating, you have to provide enhanced head protection, and that's what we're looking to see happen," says Robert Strassburger, vice president of the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents 10 car companies.
The automakers notoriously are close-mouthed about plans for future protects, but Strassburger says it is inevitable that they will install more head-protecting side airbags in part because of pressure generated by the insurance industry through the news media.
The media spotlight shone brightly last week on the first results of the institute's new crash test. The institute says an estimated 220 million Americans saw video of crash dummies being slammed by impacts amid flying glass and twisting metal.
The institute's leaders are candid about their motives: They want to goad manufacturers into strengthening vehicle sides and adding more head-protecting airbags, especially for impacts from higher-riding pickups and SUVs.
"We have discussed the development of this test with (automakers) from the beginning more than two years ago," says Adrian Lund, the institute's COO. "So they've known what was coming."
Automakers have expanded the availability of head-protecting side airbags, mostly as options. Airbag curtains in a Ford Explorer, for example, are a $560 add-on to the sticker price.
About 35 percent of 2003 model vehicles will be sold with some kind of side airbag, says the Automotive Occupants Restraints Council, but many protect only the body and are not designed to cushion the head. Only about 10 percent of vehicles sold will have head protection, says Pat Jarboe, chairman of the council's public affairs committee.
While automakers are under pressure to make head-protecting side airbags standard in more vehicles, the move may not be smart financially. The companies enjoy a markup of 100 percent or more for side airbags as an option, supplier sources say. But as standard equipment, airbag costs get absorbed into vehicle base prices, which are being kept nearly flat by intense competition.
Still, higher volume is a near certainty for side airbag suppliers, including Autoliv Inc., Delphi Corp., TRW Automotive, Takata Inc. and Simula Inc. A supplier source says the suppliers charge automakers about $100 for a pair of side curtain airbags.
Jarboe, who also is spokesman for Autoliv, says two automakers have contacted his company within the last two weeks. One indicated it plans to switch side airbags from being optional to being standard on two model lines next year. The other was inquiring about Autoliv capacity to handle a big order for side airbags.
Likewise, an executive at Takata who asked not to be named, says the company has been getting inquiries from automakers about its ability to boost its supply of side airbags.
The inquiries bear out the insurance institute assertion that its testing will help create consumer demand for better side protection.
The institute has used highly publicized tests to encourage automakers to improve vehicle performance in frontal crashes and to develop better seat backs, restraint systems and bumpers.
Brian O'Neill, the institute's president, says the industry has made more progress in reducing deaths in frontal impacts than it has in side impacts.
In the past two decades, driver deaths in frontal collisions are down about 52 percent. Side impacts are down about 24 percent. So the importance of protecting people in side impacts has increased, the institute contends.