May 13, 2004
By DANNY HAKIM
WASHINGTON, May 12 – Federal regulators proposed a major overhaul of side-impact crash tests on cars and trucks today.
The new test procedures would reinforce the industry’s voluntary commitment, by the end of the decade, to equip almost all new vehicles with inflatable curtains and other side air bags that protect people’s heads.
But the government’s research raises doubts whether current designs for side air bags with head protection – some only protect the chest and midsection – are advanced enough.
The proposals include using crash-test dummies that, for the first time in government tests, would be equipped to measure injuries to the head, the most vulnerable part of the body in side-impact collisions. In another first, they also include using dummies to represent women and children of small size, who are at disproportionate risk in side-impact accidents.
And a new test design would better reflect the risks that people in cars face from the growing number of sport utility vehicles and large pickup trucks on the road.
"Quite often, the person struck in the side had been doing everything right," said Dr. Jeffrey W. Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration – "driving sober, wearing their safety belt and going through a green light – only to get slammed in the side by a driver who ran a red light or ignored a stop sign.”
At a news conference in the courtyard of the Transportation Department headquarters here, Dr. Runge referred to his experience as an emergency-room physician. "I thought many times over, during those years, that something should be done to protect people who were doing everything right and ending up with debilitating injuries and dying," he said. He called the proposal the most important of his tenure.
The agency estimates that adding side air bags would save 700 to 1,000 lives a year and cost the auto industry $1.6 billion to $3.6 billion.
In the test now used, a 3,000-pound barrier meant to simulate a passenger car is rammed at 33.5 miles an hour into the sides of cars and trucks weighing up to 6,000 pounds. The traffic safety agency proposed adding a test that would ram vehicles sideways into a fixed pole at 18 to 20 miles an hour; it would reflect the effects of crashes with taller vehicles, trees or utility poles, and be conducted on vehicles up to 10,000 pounds.
The plans will not be made final until late next year after a comment period from the industry and the public. They have already passed through a review by the Office of Management and Budget.
If adopted, they will effectively force automakers to do something they had promised to do anyway: install side air bags that offer head protection in most vehicles.
"Automakers are already ahead of the curve," said Eron Shosteck, a spokesman for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers. "More than half of model year 2004 cars and light trucks are already available with head-protection air bags."
But the industry will have to re-evaluate whether the air bags now in use can meet the proposed standards. Research by the traffic safety agency showed that some vehicles offer poor levels of protection to shorter drivers and passengers, even with air bags.
"Small-size occupants, under 5 feet 4, are more at risk of serious injury than the average-size person," said Randa Radwan Samaha, the research program director. "It looks like vehicles are not designed as well to protect these occupants."
During the research, a child-size dummy riding in a 2002 Ford Explorer subjected to the proposed pole test sustained head damage far beyond the level considered fatal, and nearly five times the maximum being proposed as a standard. Part of the problem is that the Explorer’s curtain-type side air bag did not unravel far enough to protect a child’s head, a person at the agency with knowledge of the test said.
More troubling, the Explorer’s air bag was not activated the first time the test was run as a demonstration. In reruns, the agency rigged the air bag to make sure it would be deployed. Many automakers design their safety equipment specifically to meet standard tests performed by the government, and weaknesses may not become evident until new tests are devised or the equipment is examined by consumer groups.
"This is an extremely severe test," a Ford spokeswoman, Kristin Kinley, said. "Even though we think it will perform well in the real world, we are continually striving to improve this technology. We are using the N.H.T.S.A. test to improve the performance of our next-generation systems."
The current test uses an impact at a right angle to the vehicle, representing what would happen when, say, someone runs a red light and hits another car broadside. In the proposed pole test, the collision occurs at a 75-degree angle instead, more like a skidding side impact, and the difference could have confused the Explorer’s sensors.
One problem with side impacts is that there is far less room in the side of a vehicle to engineer protection than there is up front. Dr. Runge said the proliferation of S.U.V.’s and large pickup trucks had made the problem worse because these vehicles ride higher than most cars and would tend to strike a car in the weaker upper portions of its body rather than hit the bumper or frame first. "We expect this problem to grow," Dr. Runge said.
Last month, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, a research group financed by auto insurers, released the first crash test results for specific car models struck in the side by a truck-size metal barrier. Ten of the 13 midsize cars tested received the worst rating on a four-level scale representing likelihood of death or injury to occupants.
Last year, 43,320 people died in traffic accidents, the most since 1990. S.U.V.’s and large pickup trucks are an important factor in this, both because these vehicles pose a greater peril to cars they hit and because they tend to roll over more than cars do, making them more dangerous to their own occupants.
"We’re very supportive of this action," said R. David Pittle, a former regulator and senior vice president for technical policy at Consumers Union, the publisher of Consumer Reports. Even so, he said, referring to Dr. Runge: "It’s discouraging for him to say this is the highest-impact thing he can do during his tenure. There’s a lot more to do, and it’s clear they have the capacity to do it."
Mr. Pittle and other consumer advocates favor legislation sponsored by Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, that would direct the agency to act on a number of safety issues. Dr. Runge said today that he preferred to set his own agenda.
The traffic agency currently uses a crash-test dummy it has named Vince, with the proportions of an average man. Now it wants to give Vince some equipment to measure head-impact damage as well as body damage. It also plans to add a 4-foot-11, 98-pound dummy to represent small women, older people and children. The agency has named this test dummy Irma, after Dr. Runge’s mother. For a vehicle to pass the proposed safety standards, both dummies would have to get through crash tests without sustaining more than a certain level of damage to their heads and bodies.