Former General Motors President Edward Cole and former General Motors Vice President John DeLorean are for it. So are many consumer groups, the auto insurance industry, Forbes Magazine and three former chiefs of the federal auto safety agency.
“It” is the automotive passive restraint, often referred to in one of its forms — the air bag. Even the Secretary of Transportation liked the idea of an unobtrusive safety device that would instantaneously inflate in an auto crash to cushion motorists from metal and glass. On Dec. 6th, Secretary Coleman stated: “I have concluded that passive restraints are technologically feasible, would provide greatly increased protection in traffic accidents, and can be produced economically. I am also convinced that
would reduce traffic fatalities by 12,000 per year and serious injuries by the tens of thousands.”
THE AIR BAG passive restraint has by now been built into 13,000 cars. In highway crashes it has inflated to save lives and prevent injuries. Dr. William Haddon, of the Insurance Institute for Traffic Safety, has described the air bag as the most tested safety system under consideration by the government as mandatory equipment.
Cars with air bags have traveled about 300 million miles, demonstrating, in Secretary Coleman’s words, “a reliability higher than what the
industry itself requires before installing a new piece of equipment.”
But the auto industry opposed the government’s tentative moves over the past six years to make the passive restraint mandatory on all new cars. And on December 6th, so did Secretary Coleman.
Air bags save lives, are reliable and economical, he said, but there might be some adverse public reaction. Congress might then react and ban air bags the way it banned the interlock safety belt. And that action, he speculated, would set back the auto safety movement.
Coleman’s reasoning is faulty in both law and logic. First, interlock seat belts were liked by some and disliked by others. But they ware active restraints, requiring usage before the car would start. Air bags are passive restraints, coming into use only when there is a collision — a point which most people would find timely.
Second, the federal auto safety law directs the Secretary of Transportation to set safety standards for ‘motor vehicles to protect the public from “unreasonable risk of death or injury to persons in the event accidents do occur.” Once a Secretary of Transportation finds that a safety standard is practicable and effective to save lives, can he then refuse to issue it due to speculation about some adverse public reaction? There are courts that might say no. In fact, under the new Coleman principle, no auto safety standard would ever be issued if there were the slightest rumblings of adverse reaction. Think how easily the auto companies could drum up an adverse reaction based on misinformation, inflated cost figures and other hysterics.
IF COLEMAN SAW his leadership role differently, he could have exposed these hysterics many months ago by public education programs. Instead, he approved the Concorde (not worrying about adverse public reaction to the plane’s noise) and other less important matters, saving the air bag decision until the end of his term. He then provided a classic display of decisive indecision regarding a major life-saving innovation.
In the remaining few days of his term, he plans to convene in secret with the auto companies to get two or more of them to agree to sell 250,000 air bag-equipped cars in 1979 and 1980. Half of the cars would be equipped with driver-side-only air bags for $50 and the other half with full-front air bags at $100. He correctly expects lower than normal annual auto insurance premiums in such cars to more thean pay for the initial cost to the motorist.
This voluntary plan raises serious anti-trust issues about collusive product marketing. But its more basic and tragic absurdity lies in the auto industry’s callous past and in Secretary Coleman’s insensitive present. Ten thousand auto injuries and over 130 fatalities a day, every day, and he pours water on the best instantaneous life-saver that has come along since brakes.
It is now up to Secretary-designate of Transportation Brock Adams to reverse these years of non-decision and dramatically reduce this highway slaughter.