Side air bags that protect drivers and passengers in accidents are the latest hot technology in new cars. But, unlike the generation of driver and passenger air bags that preceded them, there is no uniform testing or federal standard to determine how the devices must work or protect occupants.
Instead of having federal regulators stepping in to set rules for how the new technology must work, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Ricardo Martinez has asked the industry to voluntarily develop procedures that would test the deployment of side air bags and how they affect, in particular, passengers who might be sitting too closely to them.
In a May 21 letter, Martinez asked the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which includes the domestic car companies, and the Association of International Automobile Manufacturers Inc. to put their heads together and quickly come up with a plan that would devise the test procedures, include the views of consumers and other groups, and be completed by the end of the year.
"Working cooperatively, we can expedite the introduction of new life-saving technologies, while assuring the public that these technologies do not add safety risks," the letter said.
The call for the industry to come up with a de facto safety standard is not unorthodox for car manufacturers who work with many industry standard-setting groups. Also, car manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz, Volvo, Audi and BMW were side air bag pioneers and have a variety of devices on the market, including air bags that deploy out of the door or the seat, and air-filled "curtains" that drop from the headrails.
Automakers said they have done extensive testing on the systems, and many of them print explicit warnings in owners' manuals or somewhere in the car warning adults to position children carefully in the rear of vehicles with side air bags.
But as early as last December, NHTSA was raising red flags about some of the side air bags being dangerous for children, who might be seated too closely to them, or who fall asleep near them.
Martinez told the automakers they must test the systems thoroughly and make sure they "do no harm" to occupants. At a public meeting in April, the agency disclosed that it was impressed with the effectiveness of side air bags overall, but some models might cause injury to children in rear seats if they were not seated properly.
Public Citizen, the public interest group founded by consumer advocate Ralph Nader, and the Center for Auto Safety, a citizens group that promotes vehicle safety, asked NHTSA to begin a rulemaking process.
For that reason, some of these same groups object to Martinez's plan to let the auto companies take the lead.
"He wants industry to agree to a voluntary standard and he'll rubber-stamp it. This is de facto deregulation," Nader said. He quipped that NHTSA was being "turned into a consulting firm."
The two groups also told the agency that the law calls for a formal rulemaking and that letting companies work together "raises serious antitrust issues." The groups are worried that companies would not recall their products if they don't comply with the voluntary standard.
Martinez said raising those concerns presents an "interesting theory." He, however, is convinced that going this route will ensure that federal regulators do not fall behind the regulatory curve as technology rapidly develops.
He said the federal rulemaking process can be long and painstaking. "It's an archaic approach and it doesn't reflect the realities of this world," he said.
Martinez said NHTSA already has a comprehensive standard that automakers must meet to protect occupants in side-impact crashes, and there are a variety of ways--including air bags--that can help them comply. He insisted that his call for voluntary action was not asking the industry to set a standard, but to develop uniform testing procedures.
"Characterizing this as a standard is misleading," he said.
The industry, meanwhile, updated NHTSA on its progress last week. The two trade groups said they assembled experts from among air-bag suppliers, car companies and the insurance industry who will have draft test procedures ready by the fall.
Other organizations, such as Public Citizen, then will be able to review the draft and have input into the final version.
"The fact here is that this is an area that companies want to work on . . . without government regulations to make sure the products are safe and effective," said William Boehly, vice president of safety for the manufacturers group.
OUT FOR COMMENT: The Cotton Board, producers and importers who handle the marketing of cotton, has religiously held its annual meeting the weekend after Labor Day. Not a problem, until importers who are Jewish objected to Sept. 10 and 11, which coincides with Rosh Hashanah. Sources said the importers asked for a change but were told hefty non-refundable deposits already had been made. So they alerted the Agriculture Department, which oversees the board. Officials there said significant business should be wrapped up before sundown on Sept. 10 and the board needs to "recognize each individual's religious obligations and beliefs." William Crawford, president of the Cotton Board, said the scheduling glitch was an oversight and won't happen again.