An article in the same section incorrectly described a Department of Transportation rule on air bags. The rule requires auto makers to provide air bags, automatic safety belts or other forms of automatic crash protection by the 1987 model year.
The chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee yesterday introduced legislation to force the auto industry to equip all new cars sold in the United States with air bags by September 1989.
The legislation, introduced by Sen. John C. Danforth (R-Mo.), would reverse the Reagan administration's decision last summer to cancel federal air-bag requirements if enough states enact mandatory safety-belt laws.
The legislation also would require damage-resistant bumpers to protect both domestic and foreign car bodies from property damage at crash speeds of 5 mph or less.
"Stronger bumpers would save consumers hundreds of dollars in repair bills from low-speed crashes," Danforth said.
Air bags are devices that inflate at the moment of impact to protect the driver and front-seat passenger.
"The use of air bags would save the lives of at least 8,500 Americans annually," Danforth said. "As it stands, however, the public may never see this technology because, by federal rule, auto makers will be excused from providing improved crash protection if enough states enact safety-belt laws."
Under the Danforth proposal, air bags would be required in 10 percent of the 1987 model year cars sold in the United States, 25 percent of 1988 cars, 40 percent of 1989 cars and all of the 1990 models.
A rule, announced last summer by Department of Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole, requires auto makers to start equipping passenger cars with air bags by the 1987 model year. But Dole said she would suspend the rule if states with two-thirds of the U.S. population pass mandatory seat-belt usage laws by April 1989.
"We think it is better to stick with the program DOT already has put in place," said a spokesman at General Motors. "It would be a shame if anything that Congress comes up with would interrupt the heartening trend toward seat-belt use laws in many states. That has a far greater life-saving potential, and its effect would be felt almost immediately."
Danforth said, however, that state legislatures are passing "sham" mandatory seat-belt laws in a rush to please auto makers, "particularly General Motors with the state location of its Saturn plant still at stake."
In Missouri, for example, Danforth said that the maximum seat-belt penalty is $10. Cars cannot be stopped just for a seat-belt violation, and passengers can refuse to wear a seat belt for "medical reasons" without a doctor's written excuse. "This is a hoax," Danforth said.
The proposal to stiffen the bumper standard is an attempt to reverse a May 1982 decision by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to roll back the federal standard requiring all cars sold in the United States to be equipped with 5-mph bumpers. NHTSA said then that the reduction of the standard to 2.5 mph would save consumers an estimated $300 million annually in vehicle costs, largely because of fuel savings resulting from lighter bumpers.
"This is a fraud," said Danforth. "A 2.5-mph bumper is an ornament. It crumples like paper in most low-speed crashes."
Another bill, co-sponsored by Danforth and Sens. Bob Packwood (R-Ore.), Frank R. Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Slade Gorton (R-Wash.), would require NHTSA to upgrade its standard for side-impact protection in crashes and to provide consumers with information on vehicle crashworthiness.