WASHINGTON -- The Obama administration wants to require the vast majority of new cars and light trucks to have side airbags that are bigger, longer-inflating and more secure than those now used to prevent motorists from being ejected during rollovers.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration proposed new rules yesterday that would require nearly all vehicles less than 10,000 pounds to have the sturdier airbags in the first three rows of seats by 2017.
The side curtain airbags would have to cover more of the window, stay inflated longer and possibly be tethered to keep vehicle occupants inside during a rollover, the proposal says.
The proposal also would extend side airbag installation to all new cars and light trucks except for walk-in vans.
“Occupants have a much better chance of surviving a crash if they are not ejected from their vehicles,” the 53-page proposal says.
An average of 6,170 deaths and 5,270 serious injuries are caused each year by ejections through side windows, according to NHTSA.
The rules, if adopted, would save about 6.2 percent of these casualties, according to NHTSA data.
Motorists who aren’t wearing seat belts would derive most of the benefits from the new airbags, but 13 percent of occupants wearing belts also would benefit, NHTSA said.
Under the proposal, the electronic sensors that trigger the airbags during a crash or rollover would have to be improved.
The plan also asks whether side windows should be glazed in multiple layers to help prevent ejections.
NHTSA seeks public comment over the next 60 days before the administration makes a decision.
The proposal stems from a congressional mandate that also required stronger roofs, better door latches along with electronic devices to stabilize vehicles.
The plan would cost automakers about $34 a vehicle more than they already plan to spend on 2011 side airbags, for a total of $583 million industrywide, the agency said.
“We’re still reviewing the proposal, but given that safety is our highest priority, we share NHTSA’s concern for enhanced safety in all aspects of operating a vehicle,” said Wade Newton, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
One question automakers will be asking, said Newton, is “whether the rules would require re-engineering, or would they facilitate what we’re already doing?”
Side airbags were standard or optional on 76 percent of 2008 vehicles, according to the alliance, a group of 11 domestic and foreign automakers.
But NHTSA said only 40 percent of the 2008 vehicles had side airbags that provide protection against an impact not involving a rollover.
Ford Motor Co. side airbags, introduced in 2002, inflate for six seconds, the proposal said, but most often stay open for just 0.1 seconds. General Motors Co.’s side airbags inflate for five seconds.
SUVs accounted for 27 percent of rollover deaths in 2007, according to NHTSA.