The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) will require automakers to equip all vehicles with side curtain air bags that provide head and torso protection in side-impact crashes by 2013.

Safety advocates said it was a good start.

"NHTSA is definitely on the right track, but it still has miles to go before its job is done," said Robert Shull of Public Citizen.

NHTSA released the new standards stating that the air bags are expected to save 311 lives annually and prevent 361 serious injuries, especially brain injuries, in crashes that often occur when a vehicle runs a stop sign at an intersection.

This new standard will spare hundreds of families from losing a loved one in a side- impact accident, and will forever raise the bar on safety for drivers and passengers across America, Transportation Secretary Mary Peters said.

NHTSA estimates that the rules will add about $33 to the cost of a vehicle.

Side-impact passenger vehicle crashes are often severe. They account for 28 percent of all fatalities, the majority of which involve a brain injury.

Safety advocates have long urged NHTSA to require automakers to do more to protect motorists in side crashes.

Rear seat protection

For the first time, NHTSA will also require automakers to provide head protection for rear seat passengers in any crash.

With these rigorous new requirements, we are building on the strength of innovative and life-saving side impact technologies that are already available to many new car buyers, NHTSA Administrator Nicole Nason said.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety has reported that its research demonstrates that head-protecting air bags reduced driver deaths by 52 percent in sport utility vehicles and 37 percent in passenger cars.

NHTSA initially first proposed side-impact standards in May 2004, roughly six months after automakers voluntarily agreed to install side air bags by 2009.

The agency reopened the regulatory process following questions about the crash test procedures automakers intended to use.

Important first step

Public Citizen's Shull said the new standards will help ensure that automakers design vehicles to protect more people from more types of side-impact crashes.

Automakers will now have to build vehicles to protect people from side-impact collisions not only with other vehicles but also with stationary objects (such as trees and other objects on the road).

Vehicles will be subjected to a tougher performance test that integrates two kinds of testing: dynamic pole tests, representing side-impact crashes with stationary objects, and movable deforming barrier (MDB) tests, replicating side-impact crashes with other vehicles. Previously NHTSA tested using only MDB tests.

New dummy

For the first time, NTSA will require that a dummy representing a small adult female to be used in side-impact performance testing. A new and more technically advanced dummy representing an adult male of average height will also be used in crash testing.

Automakers had wanted to exclude the heaviest vehicles from the side-impact requirements along with convertibles.

The new rules require vehicles that weigh less than 8,500 pounds to comply with the new crash tests by September 1, 2012. Vehicles that weigh between 8,500 and 10,000 pounds must comply by September 1, 2013.

While NHTSA does not require specific technologies to meet its new performance requirements, manufacturers likely would meet this upgraded rule with various types of innovative head, chest and pelvis protection systems, such as side curtain air bags and thorax air bags.

Miles to go

Now that NHTSA has taken these first steps, it must immediately address some unfinished business to protect the public, Shull said.

"First, the agency must address the incredibly important issue of compatibility, or the catastrophe of fatal mismatches between passenger cars and much larger light trucks and SUVs," he said.

Shull said the occupant of a car is three times more likely to be killed when struck by an SUV instead of a car and five times more likely to be killed when struck by a pickup truck.

The upgraded side-impact standard essentially tests for a collision with a mid-size passenger car, not an SUV.

"To fully replicate crash scenarios and prevent the most injury, NHTSA needs to use a moving deformable barrier that is higher, stiffer and mimics a collision with a heavier, bigger SUV," Shull said.

Safety for children

Second, Shull said NHTSA needs to improve safety for children.

"The dummies used in the upgraded testing, even in the back seat, do not adequately represent a child under the age of 12, leaving child occupants vulnerable and unaccounted for in safety testing," he said.

Third, the standard does not protect against side-impact collisions so intense that the striking vehicle or object intrudes into the vehicle, Shull noted.

He said a strict limit on the amount of acceptable amount of cab intrusion would better prevent injury to occupants in side-impact crashes.