WASHINGTON -- Automakers, hoping to keep the government from returning to a high-speed crash test for certifying air bags, have proposed a lower-speed test they say will prevent increased risk of passenger deaths from the devices.
The test suggested by domestic and foreign automakers comes in response to a government proposal to again use a 30 mph crash test of a car into a wall using an unbelted dummy.
The automakers argue that the test would force the industry to go back to using air bags that increase the risk of death to children and shorter adults who are too close to the bag when it pops open.
Instead the automakers want a 25 mph test using unbelted dummies as a compromise.
Air bags have been blamed for 143 deaths since 1990 -- mostly of unbelted child passengers or short female drivers in low-speed accidents they otherwise should have survived, according to government data. The government also estimates air bags have saved more than 4,400 lives in higher speed crashes.
The industry proposal was pitched last week in two meetings with National Highway Traffic Safety Administration officials, who are working on a new certification standard. It is backed by the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes General Motors Corp., Ford Motor Co., DaimlerChrysler AG and eight other automakers, and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers.
The old federal test required an air bag to inflate fast enough to catch an unbelted adult male dummy as a vehicle crashed into a barrier at 30 mph. The test proposed by automakers would crash the car at 25 mph into the barrier using an adult male dummy in both the driver and passenger seat, and then run the test again with two short female dummies in the front seats.
NHTSA officials, in the process of writing a proposal on future air bag tests that government officials hope to announce in October, would not comment on the automakers' proposals. Officials want to return to the older crash test because they believe it is the best measure of the performance of all of the vehicle's safety systems.
The agency also has proposed tests to make sure air bags will be turned off or inflate with less force when young children are too close to the dashboard. Automakers are not disputing the need for those tests.
But they strongly object to the 30 mph unbelted test.
For the past 2 12 years, the manufacturers have been able to certify air bags using a so-called sled test, which puts a vehicle body on a steel platform and then slams the platform backwards to try to replicate the force of a crash.
Automakers argue that this test has allowed the industry to install air bags with up to 35 percent less force and thus eliminate most of the risk of death that inflating air bags pose to shorter women, while diminishing the risk somewhat for children.
NHTSA officials argue their tests show that many of the less forceful air bags could be certified to the 30 mph unbelted test. NHTSA officials also have been concerned that in high-speed crashes, the less forceful air bags may not protect unbelted adults as well as the old air bags.