Tire-Pressure Monitoring Required

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The pressure is on while the debate continues
Americans are notoriously tire-challenged. Studies by the Rubber Manufacturers Association (RMA) shows 85 percent of drivers do not perform proper or timely checks of their auto tire pressure. Following the Firestone Tire recall in 2000, the federal government is proposing a new regulation requiring automakers to equip all new vehicles with tire pressure monitors on all four wheels of the vehicle. These monitors will warn drivers through yellow dashboard signals when any tire becomes under-inflated by 25 percent or more.

Federal Regulation
Previously the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration had allowed tire pressure monitors that either worked in concert with braking systems or as direct systems on each tire. Public Citizen, a Washington-based consumer group, sued saying that the indirect systems mounted on the brakes were less accurate and did not comply with the Congressional mandate for tire monitoring systems. That suit was upheld in court.

The government says the new system regulation will cost up to $69.89 per vehicle or $823 million to $1.2 billion across the auto industry. However, the government also estimates that $1.7 billion in fuel and vehicle maintenance costs charged to underinflated tires will be saved. Low tire pressure heats up tires causing wear at the edges and sides of the tires and requires more fuel to run the vehicle. NHTSA estimates 120 lives will be saved and more than 8,000 injuries will be prevented each year because the devices would prompt consumers to maintain the proper air pressure in their tires leading to improved braking, and help motorists avoid skids and loss of control of their vehicles.

Some four million vehicles are already equipped with tire pressure monitor devices, the majority are systems that are tied to the brake systems. From 2005 to 2007 the more costly but more accurate systems mounted on each tire will be phased in across all models.

Beginning September 1, 2005 automakers will have to install the new warning systems. Over the 2006 model year, 50 percent of an automaker's lineup must be equipped with the new devices. By 2007, 90 percent of models must have the device and by 2008 they must be in full compliance.

Spokesmen for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers said the auto industry is well on the way to meeting the new requirements saying that nearly 10 percent of new vehicles already offer direct tire pressure monitoring systems.

NHTSA is requiring the system only on new cars because it says that the system will continue to work when tires are replaced, but cannot anticipate the wide variety of tires that consumers can choose to install. But NHTSA said data indicates the systems work with the vast majority of replacement tires.

Automaker Commitment
NHTSA regulations do not require specific technologies to meet its performance standards, but manufacturers would likely meet this upgraded rule with various types of innovative head, chest and pelvis protection systems, such as side airbags. Although more than half of 2004 model year cars and light trucks already provide optional head-protection airbags, it is not clear whether those bags can meet the new standards, particularly with the small stature dummy. NHTSA research showed that many current airbags tested in the new pole test could not save a child-sized dummy from sustaining nearly five times the maximum head injury, because the side curtains did not extend far enough down in the passenger cabin to protect the child's head.

In April, the IIHS released its first results for car models struck in the side by a truck-size metal barrier. Ten of the 13 midsize cars received the worst rating representing likely death or injury to occupants. Last year IIHS ran a side impact test at 31 mph with the Subaru Forester. Its combination torso/head airbag system protected the driver.

Brian O'Neill, president of IIHS said, "no one knows what to do right now (to make) the front of a SUV or pickup truck...less harmful to occupants in a car." He believes that SUVs that have high-frame rails must be redesigned, so that the frame rails come down and align with the bumper zone specified by the federal standards, or install a blocker beam like the Ford Motor Company has done. "If the frame rail on a SUV misses the frame rail on a car, you don't have compatibility. There is a commitment by manufacturers to have frame rails over-lock the bumper zone as specified by the federal standards and many already do."

The IIHS and NHTSA testing programs along with the automaker's commitment to find a solution to side-impact fatalities, O'Neill feels, will accelerate the introduction of side-impact airbags. IIHS believes the airbags designed to protect heads are very effective and can reduce driver fatality by 45 percent. Most of the real-world data that led to the 45-percent estimate were combo bags, which combine torso and head bags. But there are reasons to prefer the curtain-style airbags because they also offer rear seat coverage where combo bags do not.

by Cathy Nikkel / autoMedia.com

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