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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > A New Chance for Auto Safety

The new team of Presidential appointees, soon to take over at the Department of Transportation, has a great opportunity to push through a number of technological breakthroughs in auto safety and auto economy. Here is part of the agenda which they must vigorously publicize if they are to derive the necessary public support in forthcoming struggles with the auto industry:

The air bag restraint system, or its technical equivalent, is slated for installation in new vehicles before the end of President Nixon’s second term. Although shoddily criticized by Ford Motor Company and the industry’s minion, the national American Automobile Association, the air bag has undergone successful testing by the government, Allstate Insurance Co., General Motors and other automotive supply and manufacturing companies. Surprisingly enough, General Motors is one of the most enthusiastic supporters of the air bag. GM President, Edward Cole, has gone on the record saying the air bag is “extremely reliable” after extensive testing. Unlike Ford, GM did not join in the suit against the Department of Transportation to block the air bag. There are indications that some air bag equipped GM models will be offered as optional equipment in 1974 and 1975. The question remains, however, as to whether GM will continue its practice of gouging the consumer for this safety feature which in mass production can be manufactured at a cost of under $10 per unit.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) experimental safety vehicle program needs more funding and quicker deadlines. This program is designed to contract for the construction of supersafety vehicle prototypes suitable for mass pro­duction. Already several non-auto industry companies have built such vehicles and had them crash tested under government auspices with good results. GM and Ford have producedtheir version of the experimental safety vehicle and sent them to the Department of Transportation. Although GM’s vehicle is more advanced than Ford’s, both companies designed them so that they could advise the government that they were not really practicable. The US government has entered into agreements with Japan and several European nations to help develop prototype safety vehicles and exchange information. VW, Mercedes, Volvo, Toyota, and Nissan have built experimental safety vehicles. Several of these vehicles are in the lower weight category — under 2500 pounds.

The purpose of this safety car program is to accelerate the development and adoption of safety features which could make collisions up to 60 mph nearly injury free and higher speed impacts survivable. Compared to the government publicity devoted to weapons of war, it is inexcusable that the government has not put more resources (this program has absorbed less funds than the cost of one B-52 bomber) and publicity behind this international venture into life saving. Almost 230,000 people are killed and millions injured yearly in auto crashes around the world.

Languishing in a room at the NHTSA is a public file to receive comments about proposed “collision avoidance systems.” This refers to radar or other collision detection systems which automatically slow down or stop the vehicle. Rather than viewing such safety features as something out of Buck Rogers, motorists should expect science and technology to apply their findings to dramatically safer automobiles at a modest cost increase. Such safety systems would save motorists much more in insurance premium reduction, fewer repair and replacement costs and, of course, fewer casualties, medical bills, lost wages and other expenses.

Next year, the NHTSA is supposed to issue standards for bumpers which will protect vehicles from damage at low speed collisions instead of receding like egg shells and permitting several hundreds of dollars in damage on a single car at a 5 or 7 mph impact.

If the Department of Transportation gives these programs high priority and if President Nixon will devote only a few hours of attention to support these great life saving and waste-prevention causes, the auto companies can be brought around to compliance. But unless citizens demand more information, more action from these political leaders and organize themselves into ongoing efforts for safer vehicles and alternative mass transit systems, the transportation crisis will worsen and the costs will mushroom.