Passive Restraints for Automobile Occupants--A Closer Look

CED-79-93: Published: Jul 27, 1979. Publicly Released: Jul 27, 1979.

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All new cars manufactured after September 1, 1983, will be required to have passive restraint systems requiring no action by occupants. The two systems being considered are air bags and automatic seat belts. The Secretary of Transportation mandated passive front seat restraint systems to overcome the public's reluctance to buckle up their seat belts.

While the restraints offer life-saving and injury-prevention potential, testing indicates that a potential danger from a deploying air bag may exist for out-of-position occupants. Because of the importance of the mandate, both in terms of cost and safety to the American public, the actual experience with passive restraints must be evaluated. Thus far, testing has been done under laboratory conditions. Real world data for air bags is still too limited to support a reliable estimate of effectiveness in reducing serious and fatal injuries. Furthermore, many questions are unanswered concerning the health and safety risks of using the chemical sodium azide to inflate air bags. Since air bag systems containing sodium azide could be installed in millions of cars, additional research needs to be conducted on this chemical to measure its risks. The cost estimates of the airbags are high, but several major insurance companies either offer or plan to offer discounts for passive restraints.

Recommendation for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed

    Comments: Please call 202/512-6100 for additional information.

    Recommendation: The Secretary of Transportation should require additional testing by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) on the problem of out-of-position occupants. Depending on the outcome of this testing, the Secretary should consider appropriate modifications to the passive restraint standard including, if warranted, additional performance requirements covering this problem. The Secretary should also: (1) appoint a task force comprised of representatives from NHTSA, the insurance industry, the automobile industry, and independent highway safety researchers to develop an evaluation plan; (2) require NHTSA to collect and analyze the data needed to implement the evaluation plan; and (3) make modifications to the standard where warranted. The Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Secretary of Labor, through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, should require that high priority be given to additional research on sodium azide to measure its health and safety risks.

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