Politics Delayed Car Safety

It is understandable why some long-time supporters of automatic safety systems in passenger automobiles heaved a sigh of relief when Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams announced his decision to require such higher safety standards starting with some 1982 model cars. The battle over passive safety systems, exemplified by the air bag, has been dragging on since the Department wanted to require their installation starting with 1973 model cars.

There was a time in the early seventies when GM was enthusiastic about air bags. In June, 1970, GM promised the government that it would make air bags standard equipment on one million 1974 model cars. GM also distributed a film extolling the virtues and simplicity of air bags in saving lives and injuries.

Then a change of top management occurred and GM turned against air bags as part of its total opposition to all government regulation of its polluting, unsafe, and fuel-inefficient cars. (GM had put air bags in about 12,000of its cars before it switched its policy.)

The auto industry easily persuaded the Ford Administration to keep these safety technologies on the shelf. The evidence of almost perfect reliability in saving lives and injuries on the highway in crashes involving air bag-equipped cars meant little to former Secretary of Transportation William Coleman. He decided against requiring the auto companies to adopt automatic safety systems.

On June 30 Secretary Adams told a crowded press conference that he would give the auto industry four years to put air bags on large cars, five years to put them on intermediate and compact cars, and six years to put them on sub-compact and mini-size automobiles.

Since estimates on lives saved by air bags on all cars have ranged from 9,000 to 15,000 a year, in addition to prevention of hundreds of thousands of injuries, it is important to question why Secretary Adams gave the auto industry a lead time whose length surprised even some hard-bitten Detroit hands.

The auto safety law requires the Secretary ofTransportation to put safety above all. Three years is more than enough time to install a simple but effective passive safety system that has been on some cars for four years and has been tested more than any other safety device considered by the Department of Transportation.

The real reasons for the extraordinary delay had little to do with technical issues. They had everything to do with politics. Chrysler, as is typical of this company’s practice, had done almost nothing to get ready for this standard. As it has done on air pollution issues, Chrysler, the nation’s third largest auto producer, merely flaunts its defiance by threatening to close down until the government backs down. Chrysler is most opposed to the standard. Adams took this into account.

Congress, under the law, has the right to pass a resolution vetoing Adams’ decision within 60 days. It is a bad, probably unconstitutional, law. And Adams let it prod him into making a bad decision.

First, he established a precedent for phasing in safety standards over a four- to six-year lead time. This long stretchout will not be lost on auto industry lobbyists the next time the government proposes a safety standard. Nor will they forget the phase-in precedent that treats passenger cars and their occupants to different levels of safety according to wheelbase size.

If Adams wanted to lay the basis for vast complications of safety standards to reasons no better than auto industry power politics, he could not have done better than what he did.

Until his decision, it was generally believed that three years’ lead time was ample notice for the government to give to the auto companies. Until his decision, the auto safety agency went on the assumption that mandatory standards would be applied to all passenger vehicles without varying schedules for compliance.

Adams has initiated another problem. His Department of Transportation urges Americans to buy smaller, fuel-efficient cars on the one hand and now it is telling Americans that if they do, they will have to wait two years longer for added safety protection than if they bought a big gas-guzzler. What is more tragic is that smaller cars need these safety systems even more than large cars.

What also is sad about the position Adams took is that he weighed improbable opposition in Congress to his decision more than he weighed certain support.

The insurance industry, the United Auto Workers, consumer groups, and Adams’ large reservoir of powerful friends in the Congress favor the passive restraint standard. He also has an easy case to sell — safer cars save more than lives and injuries; they save consumers money, including some portion of their auto insurance premiums.

In all of this there is a personal issue for Brock Adams. Precisely by giving the auto companies such a long lead time, he provided them with a second strike capability against the automatic systems. If some or all of the companies seize this opportunity, their timing will be closer to the compliance dates of 1982-1984 when they can use the shutdown blackmail they deployed so skillfully this year against the right of Americans to breathe unpolluted air.

Where will Brock Adams be then? Chances are he’ll be running for the Senate from the State of Washington. And his staff and appointees will have finished their four-year term as well. The implementation of his decision on June 30 will be left to his successor and so will the fate of thousands of Americans on the country’s roads and highways.

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