It is invisible until needed in a collision. It can save over 10,000 lives and nearly a million injuries a year. It has been proven as reliable, effective and economic in about 300 million vehicle miles of travel. There is a 1973 General Motors film applauding its life-saving excellence.
Nonetheless, this system, called the air bag, or other similar safeguards called “passive restraints,” still are not standard equipment on automobiles. Why? Ask Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman. He has just extended the department’s delay on the passive restraint standard to eight years by postponing a decision for another year. This means that what originally was proposed for the 1972 model year won’t be applied until the 1980 model year, if Coleman makes the right decision.
His auto safety chief, James Gregory, was clearly disappointed, disagreeing with Coleman’s assertion that more deliberation is needed. Gregory’s two auto safety predecessors, Douglas Toms and Dr. William Haddon, are also disappointed.
So too is Donald L. Schaffer, general counsel to Allstate Insurance Co., who terms the government’s inaction a “national disgrace.”
Schaffer, a long-time advocate of the air bag which instantly inflates inside the car to protect motorists tiring significant crashes, will send supportive evidence to anyone on request. (Write to him at Allstate Plaza, Northbrook, Ill. 60062.). He shows how air bags, presently in about 14,000 cars, can save lives and can already meet the contemplated federal standard so long postponed.
Allstate’s company fleet includes five model years of various makes of automobiles with air bags.
Evidence assembled by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicates that every day the Transportation Department delays in issuing a passive restraint standard for all new automobiles, thirty Americans will be killed and over 2,000 other motorists will be injured over the projected life of those vehicles.
Because passive restraints will reduce injury loss claims as well as prevent massive highway carnage, almost the entire auto insurance industry is demanding that Coleman decide for human safety.
The arguments for air bags or equivalent passive restraints continue to be overwhelming. Such restraints are more protective in a crash than the shoulder harness-seat belt combination. They will work virtually 100 percent of the time, as compared with a 29 to 25 percent belt usage among motorists.
They should save motorists about $2 billion yearly in insurance premiums with the multiplier effect of savings throughout the economy amounting to many billions more dollars. And they prevent fatalities and injuries.
All these beneficial consequences can result from a proved safety system costing the auto companies no more than $50 per car before profit markups in mass production volume.
These arguments leave the domestic auto industry cold. Ford Motor Co., which adds 100 pounds of insulation weight to the Granada for a quieter ride, has been militantly opposed to air bags. GM, which advocated the air bag in the early Seventies, has now rejected it with stunning callousness.
So, in the short run, it is up to Coleman. During his 15 months in office, preoccupied with Concordes and railroads, Coleman has confirmed that he can stand up to everybody but corporations and their White House friends.
Coleman’s recent remarks border on corporate demagoguery. While sniping at proven safety standards, he remains silent about such price-increasing trivia as vinyl roofs and other froth that some auto dealers sardonically call “mandatory options.”
In announcing yet another public hearing on passive restraints this August, Coleman said he will make a final decision next January, after the elections.