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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Deflating the Airbag

WASHINGTON—Former Secretary of Transportation, John Volpe, was fighting back tears when he told some of his associates in late 1972 that Mr. Nixon wanted him to leave. One of the reasons for his unanticipated exit was his strong support of the air bag and experimental safety vehicle programs in the auto safety agency. Volpe’s stand angered the domestic auto companies and Henry Ford made known his strong displeasure to H.R. Haldeman and other Nixon aides as well as the President himself.

In Volpe’s place was put a Union Oil vice president, Claude Brinegar, and in the spot to head the auto safety agency, Brinegar named James Gregory, also formerly with Union Oil. Brinegar has all but stopped the auto safety program in spite of the development of highly effective safety engineering now ready for installation in all new cars to save tens of thousands of lives. His inaction has been deliberate and conscious and aided by limited managerial abilities which are driving his subordinates to despair.

Take the air bag. It already is in several thousand cars and has worked without failure to save lives where those cars have been involved in a collision. Allstate Insurance company has tested and crusaded for widespread use of air bags. Until recently, GM planned gradual adoption of air bags on more and more of its 1974 and 1975 cars as optional equipment and later as standard equipment. But now GM is pulling back and is hardly promoting the availability of air bags as options on 50,000 1974 Oldsmobiles and Buicks.

The Brinegar-Gregory signal to the anti-air bag faction within GM, led by its Chairman, Richard Gerstenberg, has been encouraging. In a word, it has been delay. Already delayed beyond its original 1972-1973 introduction schedule, the air bag or its equivalent safety feature, is being put into oblivion by the Department of Transportaion beyond the pending date now centering around the 1976 model year.

The Senate Commerce Committee, through Senator Vance Hartke, is trying to jar Brinegar and Gregory into a sense of applying proven safety features into standards. A prominent illustration is the experimental safety cars (ESV) which Volkswagen, Toyota, Nissan and other foreign car companies have built under the Department of Transportation’s research program. For almost two years it has been obvious that these companies have shown their ability to build cars that are practical and far safer than those on the road today. The big US companies, on the other hand, have balked and produced experimental safety cars that are too heavy and not very safe in order to argue that it couldn’t be done.

Two weeks ago Toyota and Nissan presented their ESVs to the Department of Transportation after undergoing extensive testing by the Japanese government at proving grounds built expressly for this purpose outside Tokyo.

So here is Secretary Brinegar lining up with his old friends in the domestic auto industry, who have long wanted to undercut the experimental safety vehicle program, and ignoring the remarkable breakthroughs abroad for relatively small and much safer cars. He has announced another research program designed to delay standards, now capable of being met, until the mid-Eighties!

Another little publicized development relates to automatic braking systems which, once perfected, will automatically slow vehicles down to avoid collisions. Only a few years ago, this proposal was viewed by the auto industry moguls as Buck Rogers stuff. But in the current, February 1974 issue of the auto industry’s own technical association journal, Automotive Engineering, there is a reportentitled “Coming Closer: Radar Braking for Automobiles,” This report describes the latest work being done by Bendix and RCA scientists. A few weeks ago, the federal auto safety agency released a feasibility study on automatic braking systems by one of its contractors which concluded that “no technical problem have been identified which would preclude the success of such systems.” Unresolved problems remain but these reports show that with modest engineering research, many problems are being solved in the quest for this basic auto safety feature.

Auto safety technology is in the midst of major technological breakthroughs. It will take alert citizens, safety oriented AAA motor clubs, physicians like the Physicians for Automotive Safety and others to generate a demand for action by Brinegar and Gregory.