Groups applaud auto safety provisions in highway bill


WASHINGTON -- Auto safety groups said Friday a highway and transit bill approved by Congress would help deter drunken driving, encourage states to pass primary seat belt laws and lead to safer vehicles.

The safety provisions, part of a massive $286.4 billion transportation bill, offers an assortment of incentives and new requirements aimed at reducing crashes along the nation's highways at a time when more than 42,000 people are killed on the road every year.

Safety groups applauded several safety provisions, including $29 million a year to implement high visibility enforcement efforts to curb drunken driving and grants to states that pass a primary seat belt law, which lets police stop vehicles for seat belt violations, or achieve a belt usage rate of 85 percent.

Primary seat belt laws have been approved in 21 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, so the incentives could coax more states into action.

Under the plan, the government also would be required to issue new rules requiring rollover prevention technology by 2009, an update to the roof strength standard, and improved side-impact crash protection in vehicles by 2008.

"This is legislation that benefits consumers immensely and could produce the most significant safety enhancement since air bags were required in all vehicles in the 1991 highway legislation," said Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a watchdog group.

The auto industry said many of the safety measures already were found in vehicles. Side air bags, for example, are available as an option in about 75 percent of vehicles and electronic stability control, a technology credited with helping prevent rollovers, is becoming widely available in sport utility vehicles.

"Most of the issues that are in there, we are already working on or (the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) is working on," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.

Among other items, the bill would push the government to collect non-traffic, non-crash data sought by safety advocates concerned about children getting backed over by vehicles on private property.

All vehicles also will be required by April 2007 to have power window switches that are pulled up or out, eliminating the toggle switches that have led to some youngsters being strangled.

The bill also requires crash test data compiled by the government to be available on all new vehicles so consumers have the information when they are shopping for a car. It will take effect in September 2007.

"This commonsense measure puts important government-mandated safety information right on the window stickers on cars at dealership lots," said Sen. Mike DeWine, an Ohio Republican who pushed the measure.