WASHINGTON — The government on Wednesday granted a four-year extension of the September, 1989, deadline by which auto makers must equip all new cars with air bags or other automatic restraints on both sides of the front seat.
For auto makers to take advantage of the extension, they must agree to install air bags by September, 1989, on the driver's side of their vehicles, where almost three-quarters of front-seat fatalities occur.
Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole said the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had approved the proposal from Ford Motor Co. because it will save lives by hastening the production of cars equipped with at least one air bag.
'More Bags Sooner'
"The action we are taking today will result in the installation of more air bags sooner than would have occurred without this rule," Dole said.
The decision was hailed by domestic auto makers and an informal coalition of insurance companies, insurance research groups and the National Safety Council but criticized by Public Citizen, which is made up of consumer and public interest groups.
"It paves the way for the production and utilization of millions of air bags which will significantly reduce the numbers of deaths and injuries caused by car crashes," the insurance coalition said in a statement. "Had this petition not been approved, considerably fewer air bags would be in the offing and lesser occupant protection made available."
Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator who now serves as president of Public Citizen, said her organization would file a petition requesting reconsideration of the government's decision, and consider taking legal action if that failed.
'It's Going to Kill People'
Claybrook said auto makers already have been given plenty of advance warning that they must install air bags on both sides of the front seat, and extending the deadline "sets a terrible precedent and it's going to kill people" by leaving passengers unprotected.
Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler Corp. all welcomed the ruling. Each had earlier announced plans to put driver-side air bags into large numbers of cars if the deadline was extended.
The insurance coalition estimated that with the extension, 2 million domestic and foreign cars in the United States will be equipped with driver-side air bags by the 1990 model year, and 5 million by 1992, up from more than 100,000 vehicles in the current model year.
After more than a decade of debate over whether to require air bags, the Transportation Department in 1984 ordered auto makers to begin phasing in air bags or automatic seat belts starting with 1986 model cars, with both sides of all new cars to be equipped with some sort of passive restraints starting Sept. 1, 1989.
Most auto makers indicated that without an extension they would install automatic seat belts on both sides of the cars rather than air bags because they need more time to perfect a way to install air bags on the passenger side.