The Obama-administration National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is facing a challenge on auto safety as an Oct. 1, 2009, deadline approaches for the agency to publish a new Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) on ejection mitigation. The October deadline was established by the 2005 law called SAFETEA-LU. That bill contained a number of safety mandates, including ejection mitigation, which was seen as one of a number of important steps in reducing fatalities from rollovers. Currently, there are more than 52,000 annual ejections in motor vehicle crashes and more than 10,000 ejection fatalities per year.
In 2006, the agency proposed a test procedure to meet the SAFETEA-LU requirement, and has been meeting with industry groups ever since. But NHTSA has not published any public notices, much less a proposed rule, to solicit public comment. That raises the question of whether the agency will meet the October deadline.
“It’s our intention to meet the deadline,” said Karen Aldana, a NHTSA spokeswoman.
The test NHTSA proposed was made public via a letter from Louis Molino, an official in the NHTSA Office of Crashworthiness Standards. That letter was placed in the ejection mitigation docket, but NHTSA never formally asked for public comment. The proposed test involves a weighted 18-kg guided impactor that is propelled at a number of points of the side windows at speeds of 16 to 24 km/h. The distance that the impactor travels beyond the original window surface into the auto is measured. In the final standard, that limit probably will be about 100 mm.
“In general, manufacturers will meet the NHTSA requirements with the side-curtain airbags,” says Ralph Hitchcock, a consultant to American Honda Motor Co. “Thus, depending on the final NHTSA requirements, the side-curtain airbags would probably be required to retain some inflation level for a limited time and/or tension in the fabric to retain the impactor within the specified limits.”
NHTSA has said almost nothing publicly since 2006 on its plans for the FMVSS. When Ronald Medford, the agency’s Acting Deputy Administrator, testified to a House Energy & Commerce subcommittee in May—the hearing was titled “Auto Safety: Existing Mandates and Emerging Issues”—he did not even mention ejection mitigation in his prepared testimony. Medford is a Bush holdover. President Obama has not nominated a NHTSA administrator, or a deputy administrator. So, internal deliberations on a standard have likely been slowed to a crawl. Just a few weeks before that House subcommittee hearing, NHTSA issued a final rule on vehicle roof crush resistance (FMVSS No. 216) designed to prevent deaths in rollover accidents.
The roof crush resistance rule is related to the ejection mitigation rule in the sense that both address vehicle rollover, which is a priority for NHTSA. The final roof crush standard issued by the Obama NHTSA was tougher than the one proposed under George W. Bush, but it was still, for the most part, a Bush administration product—one that has been criticized by some auto safety advocacy groups as being too timid.
At those same May hearings before the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade, and Consumer Protection, Robert Strassburger, Vice President of Vehicle Safety and Harmonization at the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, said: “The SAFETEA-LU occupant ejection prevention mandate illustrates the challenge that Congress faces when reauthorizing surface transportation programs; that is, Congress risks stifling safety innovations with prescriptive mandates for advanced safety technologies.”
Asked whether the Alliance requested that the Obama administration hold off on issuing an ejection mitigation FMVSS, Wade Newton, a spokesman, said: “Well in advance of NHTSA’s rulemaking, Alliance members have been incorporating side-curtain airbags that include enhanced rollover protection. Given that, we hope—and expect—that the NHTSA occupant containment proposal will include requirements compatible with the technologies that we’re currently introducing. Automakers hope upcoming regulations don't impede current plans for the continued introduction of these important technologies.”
Auto companies have been meeting individually with NHTSA and collectively under the Alliance umbrella to talk about what they have been doing in the area of ejection mitigation. Ford, for example, has been talking with NHTSA about technologies including Belt-Minder, Safety Canopy, and Roll Stability Control.
In addition to side-curtain airbags with longer inflation capability, NHTSA could require that windows have advanced glazing. The agency considered such a mandate at the tail end of the Clinton administration, then withdrew the proposal in June 2002. Some companies have voluntarily adopted advanced glazing as an ejection mitigation technology.