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NHTSA Proposes Tougher Side Impact Airbag Rules

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHSTA), a division of the U.S. Department of Transportation, has proposed tougher side impact airbag rules for domestic manufacturers of passenger cars, trucks and SUVs. One positive impact of the implementation of such rules, according to the NHTSA, is the prevention of ejection during rollover accidents due to the larger sizes and stronger composition of side curtain airbags required by the new rules [1]. But the main emphasis of the NHTSA's proposal is on improving driver and passenger safety during side-impact auto collisions.

Specific Details of the Proposed NHTSA Side-Impact Airbag Rules

The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration first began suggesting increased side-impact safety protection for car and truck drivers and passengers in May 2004 [2]. Under the new NHTSA mandate, all vehicles sold in the domestic auto industry will have to meet side-impact crash guidelines, including increased minimum standards for side-impact airbags. The proposal calls for all vehicles manufactured for sale in the United States auto market to be equipped with side curtain airbags. These airbags will be required to offer better protection for the heads and torsos of motorists who get into side-impact car accidents. The requirements specific to these side-impact airbag rules will be mandatory by the 2013 model year for domestic auto manufacturers [3].

The NHTSA estimates the additional financial cost for automakers to implement these additional requirements for airbags in their vehicle fleets to be quite minimal, only around $33 per car or truck manufactured. NHTSA figures estimate that around 28 percent of all traffic fatalities are related to side-impact collisions; many of these deaths can be traced back to traumatic brain injuries sustained from impact [3]. Side-impact car accidents are not as common as frontal impact collisions on U.S. roads, but they do represent a sizable portion of U.S. road collisions leading to injury or death to the drivers and/or passengers. These crashes most often occur after the driver of one of the involved vehicles fails to stop at a red light or a stop sign at a four-way intersection.

NHTSA Airbag Rules Part of Overall Effort to Reduce Side-Impact Deaths

The new rules regarding side-impact airbags in U.S. vehicles are one component of an overall effort by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to work to reduce the number of traffic deaths on U.S. roads stemming from side-impact collisions. The NHTSA is also looking to upgrade its own standards on the side-impact crash testing it does on automakers' fleet vehicles. These upgrades involve additions to existing testing, and changes to equipment used in the testing.

Under these proposed changes, the NHTSA will implement new side-impact crash testing that simulates the impact of a moving car against a stationary object such as a tree or a telephone pole. The testing will be done utilizing a 10-inch round pole that will collide with a car at 20 miles per hour. Automakers will be expected to build vehicles which can pass NHTSA performance standards in these new tests. The standards will be phased in incrementally. 20 percent of each automaker's fleet of vehicles will have to pass the minimum standards for the test by the 2011 model year. Each automaker will be expected to have all their vehicles ready to pass the tests by 2014 [4]. This proposed testing change could have the effect of making cars more expensive to produce, since automakers may be forced to use more steel to reinforce the sides of their vehicles in order to make them safety compliant. The new standards for side-impact testing also include the use of improved dummies to more closely resemble humans, and new testing equipment to better capture vehicles' performance on the tests [4].

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's overall agenda to look at ways to improve motorists' safety in side-impact crash situations also includes a new stand on infant and child car seat safety [5]. The NHTSA is looking to implement new, tougher standards on side-impact safety for car seats. Currently, compulsory testing on car seats only includes front-impact crash simulations, although some manufacturers do take into account side-impact safety as well. The NHTSA wants to ramp up requirements for car seat side impact safety as part of its effort to do everything within its power to make drivers and passengers more safe and to cut down on side-impact collision injuries and deaths. Side-impact collisions by the numbers are less numerous than frontal impact collisions on U.S. roads; but the average severity of injuries and frequency of deaths related to this type of collision exceeds that of front-impact car accidents.

Manufacturers Respond to New NHTSA Standards for Side-Impact Safety

Although NHTSA proposed standards for side-impact safety in passenger cars, trucks and SUVs are not even completely set in stone, auto manufacturers understand the direction things are heading with respect to side-impact safety needs in their vehicle fleets. With this in mind, many domestic manufacturers are already at work improving their side-impact safety and technology, ahead of proposed deadline dates to implement such improvements. One particularly applicable example is that of Volvo in its new S40 model.

The redesigned S40 received a five-star government crash test rating for both front- and side-impact safety performance. The S40 features a standard side impact protection system (SIPS), a feature it shares with all Volvo cars. SIPS side impact airbags and inflatable curtains are larger in the new S40 model than they were in previous models, offering greater window coverage and giving drivers and passengers more protection for their heads and torsos when the airbags deploy. The SIPS system is an outgrowth of Volvo's Intelligent Vehicle Architecture (VIVA), a system of design which integrates divergent needs like crashworthiness and curb appeal [6]. As the NHTSA continues to move more in the direction of stronger and more stringent safety standards for all vehicles, all the domestic automakers are being pushed in a direction similar to Volvo's, emphasizing safety as a primary design objective in all new vehicle designs.

As the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration continues to focus its efforts on promoting awareness of the need for greater safety standards in our vehicles, the domestic auto manufacturing industry will have to respond to meet the new challenges created by the implementation of such standards. In a general sense, the consumers in the U.S. auto market appear to be the big winners when these types of standards are adopted and implemented into manufacturers' design norms. The challenge for manufacturers will be trying to strike a balance between keeping up with new and emerging requirements for safety features and innovations on their fleets of cars and trucks, and keeping the sticker prices of their vehicles low enough to keep them affordable for the average U.S. consumer. Taking a look at recent developments both on NHTSA's end and in the field, it appears that the domestic car manufacturers are demonstrating a willingness to do whatever they need to do to keep up with these ever-evolving safety standards. It will be interesting to analyze future developments.

[1] Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[2] Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[3] Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[4] Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[5] Retrieved 2009-12-14.
[6] Retrieved 2009-12-14.



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