WASHINGTON - The government and the auto industry are still at odds over how to test new airbags, but in general they are working together to install them in cars by 2005.
The tests will raise car prices by $162 per vehicle and save more than 600 lives a year, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. That works out to $2.4 billion per year, or $40 million per life saved.
'Ninety percent of that proposal we support either in concept or in detail,' said Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association.
The new rules have been proposed by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Car companies asked the government to adopt many of the same changes two years ago, Felrice said.
Automakers generally favor the proposals. Felrice said they presented big challenges. Every vehicle's restraint system would be subject to any of 17 certification tests, including as many as five barrier crash tests. Now, two tests are required.
'New test facilities may have to be built,' he said. He said that additional cost is not a cause for objection.
The complex rules, which call for advanced airbag systems capable of adapting responses for different kinds of crashes and passengers, contain a stumbling block.
The NHTSA wants to test airbags by crashing vehicles at 48kph into a solid barrier with an unbelted mid-sized adult male dummy in the front seat.
Carmakers, backed by suppliers and insurance companies, want to keep using an alternative: the so-called sled test.
They say the sled test has enabled them, beginning with the 1998 model year, to reduce airbag deployment power by as much as one-third. This cuts the threat of airbag-related injuries and deaths to children and small adults.
So far, 113 deaths have been blamed on airbags, mostly in low-speed crashes.
In the test, a vehicle is mounted on to a sled and rapidly accelerated backward to simulate the force of a crash.
Ricardo Martinez, NHTSA administrator, accused carmakers of exaggerating.
'We do believe that if you have to build a car, you have to test a car - not just an airbag,' said Martinez.
Manufacturers have until the fall of 2002 to begin complying. Full implementation is set for the fall of 2005, but a year extension is possible. The timetable was prescribed by Congress.