The US and 21 other countries have agreed to adopt a tougher standard for vehicle door latches, a first step toward what American officials hope will be global auto safety standards.
The standard, scheduled to be signed tomorrow in Geneva, is the first to emerge from an agreement reached in 1998 at the UN. The goal of the agreement was to establish global standards instead of allowing variations by country.
"This pioneering achievement paves the way for future vehicle improvements for motorists around the world," said Jeffrey Runge, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), which establishes vehicle standards in the US.
Japan, China and the countries of the EU are among those signing on. Under the agreement, countries will initiate whatever process they have for putting the standard in place. Once the standard is adopted, the countries will require it on every vehicle sold.
The new standard updates door safety in many countries for the first time since the 1970s. It will require doors on all vehicles to withstand tests to make sure they don't fall open on impact in a crash.
US officials said most doors will meet the new standard, but it will require changes to sliding doors on minivans and some cargo vans. Manufacturers probably will add a second latch to sliding doors to meet the standard, which will cost approximately US$7 per door.
Once the agreement is signed, NHTSA will post the proposal and allow manufacturers and others to comment. The agency expects adoption with little objection and that the standard will be in force as early as the 2008 model year.
Steve Kratzke, who oversees NHTSA's rule-making process, estimated that 11 people die in the US each year when their doors fall open during a crash.
He said keeping doors closed will help the agency deal with other safety issues, including side air bags and protection during rollovers.
Automakers praised the move toward setting international safety standards.
"This is a landmark global safety regulation, and we hope it will be the first of many," said Robert Strassburger, vice president of safety for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers.
Some consumer groups worried that safety standards could get watered down and would be harder to change once adopted by so many countries.
"If a standard makes an improvement but doesn't go as far as we think it could, the likelihood it will be changed in the near future is zilch," said Joan Claybrook, a former NHTSA administrator and head of the consumer group Public Citizen.
Claybrook said NHTSA has assured safety groups that it won't lower any current US standards.
Kratzke said global standards will help countries maximize their resources. For example, much of the research on the new door standard was done in Canada and France.
Participating countries are now working on agreements to improve headrests, motorcycle brakes, lights and pedestrian safety.
Approximately 1.2 million traffic-related deaths are recorded worldwide each year.