The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was to announce the proposed new standards on Wednesday. The agency is giving automakers, safety advocates and others several months to comment before it releases a final rule.
The rule updates side-crash standards for the first time in 14 years, setting minimum standards that vehicles will have to meet in the government's side-impact crash tests. It will be up to the automakers to determine what kind of air bags — curtain-style or otherwise — to install in order to comply.
Currently, government crash tests measure how well a vehicle protects occupants' chests in a 38.5 mph crash. For the first time, the new test will measure how well the vehicle protects occupants' heads as well as their chests.
The change is important since car occupants are at significant risk of head injury when they are struck by sport utility vehicles and other trucks with higher bumpers. In side-impact crashes between cars and light trucks, the occupants of the car are 20 times more likely to be killed, NHTSA says.
NHTSA administrator Dr. Jeffrey Runge says updating the standards could save up to 1,000 lives each year.
"This will be the most lifesaving rule we will participate in my tenure," said Runge, who is a trauma surgeon. "There is absolutely nothing higher on my rule-making agenda."
Side-impact crashes kill around 10,000 people each year, or roughly one-quarter of all deaths on the nation's roads.
The changes are expected to cost automakers millions of dollars, although neither the government nor the industry have released a more precise figure.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington trade group that represents 10 manufacturers, says automakers already reached a voluntary agreement last December to improve side-impact safety by 2009.
But safety advocates say NHTSA's intervention is necessary because there is no guarantee automakers will act.
"This is a very serious and deadly kind of accident and the current standard is inadequate," said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.
Several kinds of air bags currently are offered as standard or optional equipment on vehicles. Some inflate from the door and some from the ceiling. Some vehicles have two separate air bags to protect the torso and head, while others offer one combination bag.
Twenty-seven percent of model year 2004 vehicles have standard side air bags that protected the head; an additional 17 percent offer those air bags as an option, according to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, an insurance industry group that does research and crash tests.
The institute says side air bags that protect the head have been shown to reduce the number of deaths by up to 45 percent. Side air bags that protect only the chest reduce deaths by only 11 percent, the institute said.