1966 National Traffic and Motor Vehicle Safety Act
The purpose of the Safety Act was to reduce traffic accidents and deaths and injuries to persons resulting from traffic accidents. Pursuant to this act, NHTSA adopted and amended motor vehicle safety standard 208, which required motor vehicles to be equipped with passive restraint devices. In 1972, the U.S. Court of Appeals upheld NHTSA s authority to issue the air bag rule, stating that the agency "is empowered to issue safety standards which require improvements in existing technology or which require the development of new technology, and it is not limited to issuing standards based solely on devices already full developed." Chrysler Corp. v. Dept. of Trans., 472 F.2d 659, 673 (6th Cir. 1972).
In 1983, the Supreme Court unanimously reversed DOT s 1981 revocation of the passive restrain requirements of standard 208. In that landmark decision, the Court stated that based on the agency s 15-year rulemaking record, the government would have to reissue standard 208 or provide a better explanation for revocation. It was reissued in 1984 by Secretary Elizabeth Dole to take effect beginning in 1986 on a phased basis.
1991 "ISTEA" Legislation
The Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), enacted into law in 1991, requires all passenger cars manufactured on or after September 1, 1997, and light trucks manufactured on or after September 1, 1998, to have driver and passenger air bags, plus manual lap-shoulder belts.
1998 "TEA-21" Legislation
In the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21), Congress set out the goals to be achieved by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) in regulating air bag safety: "improve occupant protection for occupants of different sizes, belted and unbelted . . . while minimizing the risk to infants, children, and other occupants from injuries and deaths caused by air bags, by means that include advanced air bags." (emphasis added).
Congress specifically rejected proposed amendments to this legislation that would have eliminated crash testing with unbelted dummies from standard 208.
Auto manufacturers actively participated in the final drafting of this language and stipulated to these provisions, including the deadlines for issuance and effective dates.
Five Key Congressional Mandates of TEA-21
1. Congress specifically required improved protection for all sizes of occupants.
2. Congress specifically required air bag systems that minimize the risks of death and injury posed by air bags to infants, children and other people.
3. Congress specifically required protection for unbelted occupants.
The safety of unbelted occupants, young and old, male and female, remains a significant issue because the U.S. continues to have one of the lowest seat belt use rates among industrialized nations (30 % or more of the nation still does not buckle up). This percentage is even greater for young occupants, especially teenage males.
Given these statistics, it would be irresponsible for government policy and agency regulations not to take this fact into account. Unbelted occupants comprise approximately 62% of crash fatalities.
The statutory language is particularly significant because the manufacturers urged Congress to specify that belted occupants be given a priority in air bag design, and this proposal was specifically rejected.
4. Congress specifically required advanced technology.
TEA-21 authorizes NHTSA to require the use of "advanced airbags," meaning new technology and engineering beyond the current state of the art.
NHTSA has correctly interpreted the statutory mandate as a technology forcing requirement, stating that the "selection of future compliance tests under TEA-21 must be made in the context of [advanced] technologies, and not in the context of today s less sophisticated one-size-fits-all air bag designs." Supplementary Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (SNPRM), 64 Fed. Reg. 60577.
A myriad of new technical requirements are expected to be developed and used, including the installation of advanced sensor, inflator and other technologies.
Some manufacturers are already installing the next generation of components, including improved inflators for dual inflation, weight and positioning sensors, as well as improved electronic crash sensors. But while the technologies currently in production will improve safety to some degree and will also reduce the danger posed by air bags in low-risk deployments, they will not entirely resolve existing safety problems or meet the statutory mandate for advanced air bags.
5. Congress specified rapid phase-in dates.
Congress required that the final rule on advanced air bags must become effective in phases as rapidly as practicable. The phase-in effective dates are:
Beginning of phase-in on September 1, 2002 (30 months lead time from issuance of the rule) or no later than September 1, 2003; and
Completion of phase-in by September 1, 2005, or by September 2, 2006 (if phase-in schedule began in 2003).
Text of Public Law 105-178 § 7103(a) (June 9, 1998) (TEA 21)
(a) RULEMAKING TO IMPROVE AIR BAGS-
(1) NOTICE OF PROPOSED RULEMAKING- Not later than September 1, 1998, the Secretary of Transportation shall issue a notice of proposed rulemaking to improve occupant protection for occupants of different sizes, belted and unbelted, under Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard No. 208, while minimizing the risk to infants, children, and other occupants from injuries and deaths caused by air bags, by means that include advanced air bags.
(2) FINAL RULE- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Secretary shall complete the rulemaking required by this subsection by issuing, not later than September 1, 1999, a final rule with any provision the Secretary deems appropriate, consistent with paragraph (1) and the requirements of section 30111, title 49, United States Code. If the Secretary determines that the final rule cannot be completed by that date to meet the purposes of paragraph (1), the Secretary may extend the date for issuing the final rule to not later than March 1, 2000.
(3) EFFECTIVE DATE- The final rule issued under this subsection shall become effective in phases as rapidly as practicable, beginning not earlier than September 1, 2002, and no sooner than 30 months after the date of the issuance of the final rule, but not later than September 1, 2003. The final rule shall become fully effective for all vehicles identified in section 30127(b), title 49, United States Code, that are manufactured on and after September 1, 2005. Should the phase-in of the final rule required by this paragraph commence on September 1, 2003, then in that event, and only in that event, the Secretary is authorized to make the final rule fully effective on September 1, 2006, for all vehicles that are manufactured on and after that date.
(4) COORDINATION OF EFFECTIVE DATES- The requirements of S13 of Standard No. 208 shall remain in effect unless and until changed by the rule required by this subsection.
(5) CREDIT FOR EARLY COMPLIANCE- To encourage early compliance, the Secretary is directed to include in the notice of proposed rulemaking required by paragraph (1) means by which manufacturers may earn credits for future compliance. Credits, on a one-vehicle for one-vehicle basis, may be earned for vehicles certified as being in full compliance under section 30115 of title 49, United States Code, with the rule required by paragraph (2) which are either--
(A) so certified in advance of the phase-in period; or
(B) in excess of the percentage requirements during the phase-in period