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THE GOODS : All-Around Efforts to Make Safety a Side Issue


Air bags and seat belts are considered essential equipment by drivers concerned about the survivability of frontal crashes. But attention is increasingly turning to how well new cars protect occupants in side-impact crashes.

The need for improved side-impact safety seems compelling. About 8,800 deaths occur annually as the result of side-impact collisions, second only to the roughly 15,000 annual deaths from frontal crashes.

Auto makers began including side-impact beams in car doors in the '70s, a vastly overrated improvement that yielded little real protection for front-seat passengers, said independent safety experts including the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. (Rear-seat occupants are better protected in a side collision by the car's structure and have a lower fatality rate.)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a requirement called the dynamic side-impact standard in the late 1980s. It required auto makers to design doors that would better protect passengers from the intrusion of car parts and structure in side impacts.

The new standard will be phased in over four years so that by the 1997 model year, all new cars (not trucks) will have to pass a test equivalent to their being broadsided traveling at 15 m.p.h. by a vehicle moving 30 m.p.h. But the standard is primarily intended to prevent abdominal and chest injuries. It does not attempt to mitigate head injuries, which some experts consider the leading cause of side-impact death.

The NHTSA is developing such a standard, though devising a rule and test procedure is as complex as developing the safety improvements in the cars.

Some manufacturers are racing ahead of federal requirements. Volvo introduced standard side-impact air bags in its 850 Turbo models for 1995. The system has a percussion cap that detonates upon impact and inflates a 12-liter bag in about 12-thousandths of a second. These are smaller than dashboard air bags and operate differently. Dashboard air bags are activated by rapid deceleration, not impact.

Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety, a nonprofit consumer-protection group in Washington, D.C., questions the effectiveness of side air bags in the absence of any federal standards. Door pillars of steel in concentric hollow tubes to cushion head impacts, for example, may prove to be an effective, lower-cost solution, he says.

Meanwhile, many models already meet the new dynamic impact standard to prevent head and chest injuries, including the Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, Chevrolet Lumina and Dodge Intrepid. A full listing can be obtained from the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety by writing: Shopping for a Safer Car, P.O. Box 1420, Arlington, Va. 22210. Enclose a stamped, self-addressed envelope.

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