The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration announced this week that front-seat automatic crash protection such as air bags now required in passenger cars, will be required in vans, light trucks, utility vehicles and small buses.

"The current requirement for air bags or automatic safety belts in new passenger cars has resulted in many lives saved and injuries prevented," Jerry Ralph Curry, NHTSA administrator, told a news conference. "Today's announcement means the same protection will be afforded to the occupants of minivans, light trucks and other vehicles."Curry said the requirement could save as many as 2,000 additional lives a year.

Covered under the new requirement are vans, light trucks, utility vehicles and small buses with a gross vehicle weigh rating of 8,500 pounds or less and an unloaded vehicle weight of 5,500 pounds or less. Motor homes, open-body vehicles and chassis-mounted campers also are covered by the new standard. Walk-in vans and vehicles designed especially for the U.S. Postal Service are excluded.

Curry said the agency will phase in the new requirements over four years. Twenty percent of the light trucks and other vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 1994, must be equipped with air bags or automatic safety belts; 50 percent after 1995; 90 percent after 1996; and all such vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 1997.

An alternate schedule designed for limited-line manufacturers would allow the manufacturer to delay the requirement by one year, but skip the phase-in, so that all vehicles manufactured after Sept. 1, 1995, are equipped with automatic crash protection, Curry said.

The new rule also includes an incentive for manufacturers to install air bags rather than automatic belts, Curry said. Vehicles offering a driver's side air bag may use a manual safety belt on the passenger side and still be in compliance with the new safety standard through model year 1998.

"We encourage manufacturers to install air bags because, when used in combination with lap and shoulder belts, they offer the best protection available," Curry said.

"This is the most important step we have taken to assure the same safety standards apply to light trucks and passenger cars," Curry said. "Today light trucks and vans are extremely popular as passenger car substitutes, and their occupants deserve this additional safety protection."