In what may be considered one of the most significant safety regulations in recent decades, federal regulators have said that all auto makers must equip their vehicles with side curtain air bags by the year 2013. According to the Detroit News, these airbags mandated by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration that provide head and torso protection in dangerous side-impact crashes could save 311 lives and prevent 361 serious injuries in just one year.
The NHTSA estimates that the new rules will add about $33 to the cost of a vehicle. According to the Detroit News article, side impact crashes account for 9 percent of crashes, but more than 20 percent of auto fatalities. As part of the new regulations, auto makers must also conduct a new crash test that simulates a car hitting a pole at 20 mph at a 75-degree angle and demonstrate protection for front and rear passengers. And for the first time, NHTSA will mandate head protection for rear seat passengers in any crash. Moreover, a study last year by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found head-protecting air bags reduced driver deaths by 52 percent in sport utility vehicles and 37 percent in passenger cars.
According to safety experts, this air bag regulation will essentially require a side window curtain air bag for head protection and a separate air bag to protect the thorax, which will help keep occupants in vehicles during rollovers and side-impact crashes. Complying with the regulation will add $243 to the cost of a vehicle, but NHTSA says the net cost increase is $33 per vehicle, or $560 million annually, based on improvements automakers were planning to do anyway.
Obviously this move will save lives and that’s good news. But it’s interesting that it took the NHTSA decades to realize the validity of side airbags. For decades auto safety experts have been pleading with the NHTSA to impose these regulations, but auto manufacturers as always want to dilute or destroy any rules that would add to the cost of their vehicles. Very often, we see that auto makers don’t mind adding safety features to their luxury vehicles whose buyers don’t mind shelling out the extra cash. But when it comes to the lower-priced vehicles, safety technologies are not a priority. That’s why these rules that make these already used-and-available technologies mandatory are important.
As safety advocates maintain, this is only an important first step with the side-impact standard, but the NHTSA has a very long way to go. They say the crash testing even with these airbags does not adequately represent a child under 12. Children who are placed on the back seat are still vulnerable to injuries because the NHTSA does not account for them in side impact crashes. So if parents cannot put there children on the front seat or the rear seat, where are they supposed to put them?
The NHTSA has a long way to go. We know very well that self-policing has never worked and will never work with auto manufacturers. Industry giants such as Ford and General Motors have a track record of putting profit ahead of people. It is up to federal safety agencies to look out for our safety. Otherwise citizens are left with no other option but litigation.