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Safety Groups Say Makers Lax on Air Bag Use

November 21, 1989

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Three auto safety groups accused the federal government Tuesday of failing to promote and enforce air bag rules, but a government highway safety spokesman said car passenger protection is its top priority.

Public Citizen, the Center for Auto Safety and Motor Voters also issued a ″report card″ on air bags, giving failing grades to all but four auto manufacturers for laxity in installation of the passenger-protecti on devices.

A Virginia woman, appearing at a news conference with the coalition of safety and consumer groups, said she survived a 110 mph head-on collision because an air bag popped out of her steering wheel.

The groups estimate that nearly one-third of the 10 million 1990 cars sold in the United States will be equipped with driver’s-side air bags, compared to about 400,000 of the 1989 models. A new safety administration rule requires either a driver’s air bag or lap and shoulder belts that automatically encircle both front-seat occupants in all 1990-model cars.

″NHTSA’s engine seems to be stuck in neutral on air bags,″ said Joan Claybrook, head of Public Citizen. She said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, which she once headed, needs to promote air bags and closely monitor air bag use to perfect the several systems that are being installed in new cars.

Ms. Claybrook said the agency should conduct its crash tests at higher speeds and upgrade its standards to mandate air bags for small vans as well as cars.

″We are dumbfounded and mystified by her criticism,″ said NHTSA spokesman Barry McCahill.

He said the agency has made the promotion of all types of occupant protection its ″number one priority.″

McCahill said the agency’s decision to allow manufacturers the option of installing air bags on the driver’s side in combination with automatic belts on the passenger side initially has accelerated the program. Eventually, passenger-side air bags will also be required, he said.

″It’s truly good to be here, literally,″ said Denise Rusk of Kilmarnock, Va., who said she could not remember what happened after a Ford station wagon crossed into her lane on Sept. 22, 1988, and smashed head-on into her car. Both vehicles were going 55 mph, putting the force of the impact at 110 mph.

Showing no sign of her injuries, Mrs. Rusk said she suffered 36 broken bones, but the air bag prevented her from slamming into the steering wheel and dashboard of her new Chrysler LeBaron convertible. The driver of the other car was killed.

″Everything around the air bag seemed to be broken,″ she said.

Mrs. Rusk said she planned to buy another LeBaron convertible with an airbag.

The auto safety groups gave Chrysler Corp. the highest score on its air bag ″report card″ of the 12 major manufacturers selling cars in the United States, followed by Mercedes. Ford and Volvo tied for third place.

All other automakers ″failed,″ said Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety. General Motors ranked 5th.

Manufacturers ranking at the bottom, in order after GM, were Toyota, Volkswagen, Mazda, Nissan, Honda, Hyundai and Subaru.

GM President Robert C. Stempel said in a statement that the company expects to be the largest producer of cars with air bags by 1994, with plans for more driver’s-side air bags in 1991 and passenger-side bags in some 1992 models.

″GM has taken great care in designing its air bag system,″ Stempel said. ″As a result, we believe our system supplies superior supplemental protection for our customers.″ He cautioned, along with the safety groups, that lap-shoulder belts always should be used, even in cars with air bags.

The groups said the rankings were based on the number of 1990 models equipped with the safety devices as standard equipment, plans for future installation of air bags, protection devices used in all seating positions of cars, information provided to dealers and the contents of company ads.

Ditlow said two Honda dealers told consumer surveyors that air bags might blow up in the driver’s face, which he said is ″a stunning piece of misinformation.″

A spokeswoman for Honda, Toni Harrington, said she had never heard of such a claim being made by Honda dealers.

″We would not be putting air bags in our cars if they were not considered safe,″ she said. Honda offers air bags only in its top-line Legends but plans to expand their use to other models, Ms. Harrington said.

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