WASHINGTON -- The federal government plans to require automakers to use a 25 mph test for air bags, an industry-backed move designed to better protect children and smaller adults, according to published reports today.
The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration will issue the order next week instructing automakers to begin using the test in 2003, The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal reported.
Automakers will be required to install air bags that inflate forcefully enough to cushion occupants as a car crashes into a solid wall at 25 mph.
NHTSA previously had said it supported an eventual return 30 mph test to ensure the bags would deploy forcefully enough to protect unbelted adults in high-speed crashes.
NHTSA spokesman Tim Hurd would not comment on the reports, saying the rule had not been finalized.
Some consumer groups that favor the 30 mph test argue automakers could use sensors and dual-speed air bags to make sure the devices do not deploy too forcefully and harm children and smaller adults.
"This is engineering malpractice," Joan Claybrook, president of consumer advocacy group Public Citizen, said of the new rule.
Until 1997 NHTSA had required a 30 mph test to try to prevent deaths to passenger-side occupants due to air-bag deployments, often in low-speed accidents. It made the test optional in 1997 and automakers quickly installed less-forceful air bags in cars.
Government data show that air-bag deaths have declined sharply for those model years.
NHTSA's first draft of the rule included a return to the 30 mph standard by 2008. The rule would have been phased in gradually, with automakers allowed to use the slower speed until 2003.
But the newspapers reported that the Office of Management and Budget, which reviews proposed rules, rejected that proposal, saying arguments for the 30 mph test were not convincing and could harm those they are meant to protect.
As of April 1, there had been 158 air-bag fatalities, 92 of them children. Air bags have saved the lives of some 5,000 people since the 1980s, according to government statistics.
Under the rule, automakers will phase in the new air bags starting with 2003-model cars and must be in full compliance by the 2006 model year.
The rule also will require the automaker to reduce the severity of crash injuries in tests and run tests on a whole family of dummies rather than just one representing an average-size male.
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