America's car companies, international automakers and the insurance industry's safety group have asked the U.S. government to toughen the standard for protecting automobile occupants in side-impact collisions.

It's not often that industry asks government for tougher regulations, but in this case, the auto industry's petition is part of a larger effort to improve automobile safety standards around the world. The effort, known as international harmonization, is an attempt to have the same or equivalent safety standards worldwide.There are many benefits to harmonizing safety standards. Automobile safety would be improved around the world. Automakers - and their customers - would get the benefit of increased efficiencies in production, ultimately resulting in lower costs for everyone.

Chrysler, Ford and General Motors have actively supported international harmonization of au-to-mo-bile safety standards, with one important condition: We won't ask the government to change a U.S. standard if it will result in a decrease in the safety of American drivers and their passengers.

Our petition asking the U.S. government to adopt Europe's standard for protecting automobile occupants in side-impact collisions meets that condition. And automakers have an important partner in the proposal to adopt the European standard, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, which co-signed the petition.

Both the U.S. and European side-impact standards have the same goal - protecting occupants when another vehicle strikes theirs in the side - but the two standards use different test procedures, test dummies, and criteria for measuring injuries. There are no scientific or safety reasons for these differences.

Adopting the European standard would increase the safety of American drivers and passengers. A study by the Australian government found that the European standard provided slightly more safety for vehicle occupants. For example, the European standard includes a measure of head protection in side-impacts, something the U.S. standard currently does not do.

Critics of the proposal do not disagree that adoption of the European standard would improve safety for U.S. motorists, but they contend that the U.S. and European standards aren't tough enough, because they do not take into account the increasing number of light trucks on our highways.

These critics argue that some new standard should be adopted that specifically addresses the issue of light truck side-impacts. They say that adoption of the petition would preclude future upgrades in the side-impacts safety standard, because the United States would then have a "harmonized' standard and would be reluctant to change it unless other nations did likewise.

There is no factual basis for this position, and we have greater confidence than some consumer groups that the government will continue to improve safety where and when it is feasible.

The issue of compatibility of vehicles needs to be studied, and the U.S. and other governments have already begun research. The auto industry is part of that effort. But before we change vehicles in an attempt to make them more compatible, we have to be sure there aren't any unforeseen and unintended consequence of those changes, such as decreased safety for occupants of those vehicles.

Vehicle safety is not static; improvements in safety are always being made. Our petition is another step that can yield safety improvements in the near future. Development of a totally new standard would take years, and delaying action on our proposal would deprive the American public of improved safety in the interim.

If research reveals a better solution, the standard can be revised. In the meantime, we should not postpone improving the safety of America's drivers and passengers.