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Feds Announce New Air Bag Rules

Updated:
WASHINGTON (AP) — Children and smaller adults will be better protected from inflating air bags under an overhaul of the federal government's standards for the safety equipment, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said today.

Under a new rule that takes effect with the 2004 model year, automakers will be required to perform tests using an entire ``family'' of auto dummies, including 1-, 3- and 6-year-old children and a small woman, as well as an average-size man.

The regulations attempt to recreate real-world conditions by specifying that child dummies be placed in child seats on the passenger seat and in unbelted sitting, kneeling, standing and lying positions.

``This rulemaking continues our extensive series of actions designed to preserve the benefits of air bags and decrease the potential hazard for children and small adults,'' Slater said in a statement.

The rule also calls for a 25 mph crash test, which the auto industry promotes as a standard that will protect smaller passengers. Since 1990, air bags have killed 158 children and small adults, most unbelted and involved in low-speed crashes.

In response to the deaths, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reduced its 30 mph testing standard, issuing a temporary rule allowing automakers to use a 25 mph test that results in air bags that deploy with less force. Federal data shows air bag deaths have declined sharply for vehicles made since then.

Some consumer groups wanted a return to the 30 mph standard that would result in more powerful air bags, which they say could be combined with advanced technology to stop them from inflating at lower crash speeds.

``The people who have been killed by air bags in low-speed crashes were killed by cut-rate air bags that manufacturers installed years ago to save money,'' safety group Public Citizen said in a statement criticizing the rule. ``Technology has existed for years to ensure that air bags do not injure smaller-statured people in low-speed crashes, but few manufacturers used it.''

Auto officials dispute that it is a matter of cost, saying customers demand safer products.

During a phase-in period between Sept. 1, 2003, and Aug. 31, 2006, vehicles will be required to meet requirements for reducing air bag risks, either by automatically turning off the air bag in the presence of young children or deploying the air bag in a manner much less likely to cause serious or fatal injury, officials said.

During a second phase-in from Sept. 1, 2007, to Aug. 31, 2010, the maximum test speed for belted average-size dummies will increase from 30 mph to 35 mph.

Transportation officials say the rule could change after a period of public comment and reaction to the slower-speed test.

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On the Net: National Highway Traffic Safety Administration: http://www.nhtsa.dot.gov
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