This week, federal regulators plan to take a major step toward protecting passengers in side-impact crashes, which are responsible for 10,000 deaths each year on the nation's highways.
For the first time since 1990, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is expected to propose a new set of safety standards that vehicles will have to meet in side-impact crashes. The rules are expected to result in the installation of side air bags in all vehicles, since vehicles won't be able to meet the standards without them.
When the sport utility vehicle she was riding in was broadsided by a Jeep Cherokee, Abigail Baglione's head was hit so hard she was in a coma for seven weeks.
Baglione, 25, suffered a traumatic brain injury and spent more than two years in rehabilitation after the 2000 crash. What angers her most is that her injuries could have been prevented if the SUV had side air bags.
"The public needs to know that head protection in their car or truck is not a luxury. It's essential," Baglione said at an appearance in Washington this spring.
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."
For the first time, the rule will require vehicles to protect occupants' heads as well as their torsos. 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 spokesman Rae Tyson said improved crash test dummies make it possible for NHTSA to estimate the amount of head trauma. The rules also will require automakers to protect different sizes of dummies.
Once the rules are proposed, automakers, safety groups and others will be allowed to comment before NHTSA issues a final rule. It could take four years before the rule results in concrete design changes, which will cost manufacturers millions of dollars.
The Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, a Washington trade group that represents 10 automakers, hopes NHTSA takes into account an agreement manufacturers made last December to improve side-impact safety.
Under the voluntary agreement, automakers pledged to add side air bags and improve door beams and side bumpers by 2009. They also will consider ways to redesign trucks so that their bumpers are better aligned with cars.
Alliance spokesman Eron Shosteck said automakers will meet that goal because the market demands it. Surveys indicate that consumers are more interested in safety-related technology than any other feature, Shosteck said.
"We have consumer demand for these safety technologies like we've never seen before," Shosteck said.
Safety advocates say changes should be mandated, since automakers have been slow to add safety features on their own. They say NHTSA should act more quickly since the agency has known for years that the side-impact standard was out of date.
"This is a very serious and deadly kind of accident and the current standard is adequate," said R. David Pittle, senior vice president of Consumers Union, which publishes Consumer Reports.
Pittle said NHTSA must ensure that its new crash tests _ which it uses to enforce standards _ approximate crashes between trucks and cars. Current crash tests mimic crashes between cars, he said.
"The current assessment doesn't give you the kind of information you need," he said.
But Runge has been reluctant force requirements on the industry, saying automakers can often work much faster than the government. He also has argued that when technology is mandated, automakers don't have as much incentive to develop even better designs.
Right now, there are several kinds of air bags offered as standard or optional equipment on vehicles. Some inflate from the door and some from the ceiling. Some vehicles offer two separate air bags to protect the torso and head, while others offer one combination bag.
In 2004, 27 percent of all 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 are critical because they have been shown to reduce the number of deaths by up to 45 percent. Side air bags that protect only the torso reduce deaths by only 11 percent, the institute said.