A government requirement that all new automobiles must be equipped with air bags or passive seatbelt safety devices by the autumn of 1983 was upheld by Congress yesterday.
The House Commerce Committee tabled a resolution to overturn the decision, announced by Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams on June 30. Several hours later, the Senate killed a resolution that opposed the airbag mandate.
Since the Carter administration decision is due to make effect on Friday unless nullified by both the House and Senate, yesterday's vote means domestic and foreign auto manufacturers must gear up production lines to offer the safety devices.
Under the Adams order, passive restraints must be offered in the front seats of all large cars beginning with 1982 models, in Sept. of 1981. The decision is one of the most significant changes in government policy since the currents administration came into office.
The requirment will be extended to medium-sized and compact cars for 1983 models and to the smallest cars for 1984 models. Airbags are estimated to cost $200 each for installation, with replacement costing up to $600 each.
In the previous administration, former Secretary of Transportation William R. Coleman, Jr., had reached agreements with several auto makers for a large demonstration project, before a decision would be made on the passive restraint system. The system still is untested in a mass marketing environment.
A DOT spokesman, speaking for Adams and National Highway Traffic and Safety Administration Chief Joan Claybrook said after yesterday's votes, "American motorists will mark this as a significant day in the ecourse of highway and motor vehicle safety."
Esther Patterson, consumer adviser to President Carter, has described the airbag order as "perhaps the single most important accomplishment of the National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act."
Since 1968, the government has required seatbelts in new cars. Nearly all installed to date have to be buckled by the passengers, leading to a description of the belt as "active" restraints.
Airbags, under study at DOT for eight years, are "passive" in that they require no action by driver or occupant in automobiles. The ballon-like devices inflate instantaneously when a crash occurs to protect the occupants. They almost immediately deflate afterward.
New passive seats belts, offered by Volkswagen, do not buckle, but are attached to seats and car doors. The automatically strap a person in an auto seat.
DOT has estimated that its order, when fully implemented, will save about 9,000 lives a year and prevent thousands of crippling injuries, primarily from frant tnd crashes.
Each auto maker is permtted by the order to use any design it chosses. Adam's forecast that about 2.5 million cars will be affected in the first year of the program, an additional 5 million in the second phase, and another 2.5 million in the third phase.
Automobile manufacturers generally have opposed the passive restraint order, citing the lack of broad testing, the costs involved and their claim that if seatbelt use would be mandated, the end result in lives saved would be the same.
At the same time, the manufacturers have indicated plans to comply. VW will continue to offer passive seatbelts on its Rabbit models, and Toyota plans to offer a driver-only air bag in a 1980 model.
At General Motors Corp. the industry leader, chairman Thomas A. Murphy has notified Secretary Adams that his company plans to offer automatic belt restraints on three lines of cars in the future.
Murphy said GM hopes to offer some automatic belts by the start of the 1979 model year or earlier, if possible. An airbag system will be offered as an option on full-sized GM cars as soon as practical, Murphy told Adams.
Chrysler Corp. chairman John Richcardo has been among vigorous opponents of the air bag requirement. In a telegram to all members of Congress last week calling for them to overturn the airbag decision, Riccardo said it is "wrong to mislead people into believing that airbags will solve the problem of auto safety. They will not. We should instead get on with the job of saving lives now by increasing the use of safety belts in all cars."