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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. to Enforce New Airbag Rules

WASHINGTON -- U.S. federal safety officials have said they would put into force as early as next month new car airbag regulations that will better protect children and women from the killing force of airbag inflation.

But National Highway Traffic Safety Administrator Ricardo Martinez also said Thursday he did not have the authority to go along with demands by carmakers and safety experts to make airbags even safer by easing crash standards used in regulating the bags.

Tests now must cover unbelted occupants, which requires that airbags deploy with higher speeds than would be needed if tests were run only on belted occupants.

The industry said that with a belted standard, it could focus on developing an overall safety system that would address not only the airbag and seat belt, but also how the bag is folded and placed as well as the development of a car frame that would absorb impact.

Martinez told the Senate Commerce and Transportation Committee that the new airbag regulations would allow carmakers to reduce airbag power by 20 to 35 percent. They now inflate at up to 320 kilometers per hour.

While airbags are credited with saving about 1,700 lives since being introduced in the 1980s, their powerful force has been blamed for the deaths of 32 children and some 20 adults, many of them women or frail older people. Although the slower inflation speed is designed to reduce the danger to children, it will likely also take away some of the protection for unbelted adults, experts said.

Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, said that if the regulations came out by February, Detroit could begin to fit the lower powered bags on 1998 model cars.

De-powering would remain in force until carmakers developed a "smart" airbag that could sense when a child or small person was riding in the passenger seat and automatically reduce the bag's inflation speed, the NHTSA said.

The new regulations would also allow dealers and mechanics to deactivate airbags if requested by owners.

Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, an Idaho Republican, pressed Martinez to end car crash standards based on unbelted adults, but Martinez said he lacked the authority and that Congress would have to take that step.

Carmakers and safety experts noted that when airbag rules were set, only about 15 percent of Americans wore seat belts and the explosive force of the airbag was set at its high rate of speed to protect the unbelted 85 percent. But now about 70 percent ride belted, they said, and the regulations should be set for them and not the minority 30 percent.

James Hall, chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board, said "airbag regulatory standards based on unrestrained occupants are no longer appropriate" and with higher seat belt use, testing is not representative of actual crash conditions.

Some said the NHTSA was too slow to create new rules. But Martinez said the agency issued its first advisory against children riding in the front seat of a car with a passenger-side airbag in 1991, before the first infant was killed, and has issued six advisories since.

-- Reuters