The auto industry, enlisting the support of many of the nation's major insurance companies, told the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that it strongly opposes a rule that would call for the use of a high-speed test into a barrier, resulting in an air bag that they say is too forceful and poses safety risks to children.

Rather, industry sources said, automakers would like to see a federal standard that allows for testing air bags at lower speeds. This would allow them to outfit cars and trucks with safety devices that might slightly compromise the safety of unbelted male occupants, but would not harm small-statured women and children.

In a letter dated Sept. 16, automakers and insurers told NHTSA Administrator Ricardo Martinez that "the advanced air bag rule that the agency ultimately promulgates must allow for the continued installation of air bags with reduced, or depowered, output across the vehicle fleet."

Apart from the letter, sources said the industry hopes to convince NHTSA that the test included in any final government standard should be a two-tiered one: Unbelted male and female dummies would be crashed into a barrier at 25 mph, while a belted male and female dummy would have to pass a 30-mph test.

"This slightly lower speed will protect kids even if there is some trade-off in protecting unbelted adults--and there wouldn't be many of those," said a source familiar with the industry proposal.

The industry has been in discussions with the agency over coming up with an air bag that protects everyone--a technological challenge that would cover women, children, small-statured adults, and people who don't buckle up. The testing protocol used to meet such a standard is central in the debate over what kind of air bags automakers will use, and who they will protect.

NHTSA has until March to produce a final rule. By Oct. 1, the agency may issue a supplemental ruling that would discuss the comments it has received since its proposal on advanced air bags came out in September 1998. In the interim, automakers have been allowed to install less forceful, or depowered, air bags in vehicles and they have not had to use the barrier test. They insist that the depowered bags have not put unbelted adult passengers at risk.

Public interest groups have lobbied forcefully to retain the tougher barrier test, expressing a concern that any other approach would fail to adequately protect the 30 percent of occupants who don't wear seat belts.

That test, which resulted in what many automakers say was a too-aggressive air bag, is one calibrated to protect a 50th-percentile unbelted male dummy that is crashed into a barrier at 30 mph.

"If they return to the old test, you'll put kids and small people at risk," said a source familiar with talks that have been held between auto company representatives and NHTSA.

Automakers say they are loathe to go back to a barrier test at 30 mph since so many women and children were injured--some fatally--by air bags in low-speed crashes because of air bags that were too forceful. Among the 143 air-bag-related deaths recorded by NHTSA, 82 have been children, though many were not properly restrained in the vehicle.

The signatories of the letter urged NHTSA to focus its rulemaking on reducing risks to children and others in low-speed crashes, instead of "attempting to increase air-bag related benefits for unbelted occupants in higher speed crashes."

Besides the domestic and international auto companies, the letter was signed by companies such as Geico Direct and State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Cos., and by the American Trauma Society.

Sources said the letter was crafted to include interests other than the auto companies to try to convince the top leadership at the Department of Transportation that there is widespread opposition to the more stringent barrier test.

AIR BAGS, FROM BOTH SIDES

Here are estimated air-bag benefits, as of Sept. 1, 1998 . . .

Drivers saved: 2,954

Passengers saved: 494

Total: 3,448*

*965 belted, 2,483 unbelted)

. . . and confirmed air-bag deaths:

Children in rear-facing child safety seats: 15

Children not in rear-facing child safety seats (three restrained, but not properly): 51

Adult drivers (11 properly restrained): 42

Adult passengers (two restrained): 5

Total: 113

SOURCE: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration