WASHINGTON -- Air bags must protect a ''family'' of dummies in new federal tests intended to prevent nearly all deaths from the inflating bags, according to final government regulations expected this month.
Congress directed the Transportation Department to make the regulations final by Wednesday. That deadline has slipped, but most of the plan is already known.
The new testing is broad in scope, covering how air bags inflate when adults are involved in serious automobile crashes as well as checking how they inflate in stationary tests when child dummies are positioned close to the instrument panel where the air bag comes out.
The auto industry agrees with most of the plan, but the regulations have been delayed because of heavy lobbying by the industry and many other groups to remove one controversial crash test.
Air bags have been blamed for at least 150 deaths -- mainly young, unbelted children and some shorter women -- in low-speed crashes that they otherwise should have survived, according to government data.
Transportation Department officials say they crafted the tests to certify air bag systems in future cars that avoid nearly all bag-caused deaths while maintaining their benefits in saving lives in high-speed crashes.
In a letter to Congress late Tuesday, Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater said he planned to ''issue the rule shortly'' and that it would ''meet the dual goals of increasing protection and reducing the risk from air bags.''
To give the auto industry sufficient lead time, the new regulations will be phased in for new cars between 2003 and 2006.
The new federal tests require adding a female dummy to the male dummy already being used, along with child dummies representing an infant, a 3-year-old and a 6-year-old.
Some of the tests are intended to ensure the bags either do not inflate when children are present or inflate with much less energy so children are not harmed. In those stationary tests, the air bag is fired after children are placed in various positions on the seat or close to the instrument panel.
The new plan also requires crashing the front of vehicles into a wall to ensure the air bags will inflate with enough force to cushion an ''adult male'' dummy and a ''slender female'' dummy. A second test crashes only about half the front of a vehicle into a softer barrier to make sure the auto's sensors detect a more moderate crash and do not fire air bags too late, hurting belted female drivers.
The most heavily publicized and controversial part of the air bag regulations would require the auto industry to return to a severe crash test that ensures air bags inflate forcefully enough to cushion an unbelted adult male as a car crashes into a solid wall at 30 mph.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration made that test optional in 1997, and automakers quickly installed less forceful air bags in cars. Government data shows that air bag deaths have declined sharply for those model years.
The groups that want the 30 mph test changed to a lower speed include the auto industry, the National Transportation Safety Board, the American Trauma Society and the National Association of Governors' Highway Safety Representatives.
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