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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > How Shuster Lined Up Auto Safety Foes

With one of the worst anti-con­sumer, environmental and tax re­form records in Congress, Represen­tative H. G. Shuster (R-Pa.) is straining these days to preserve the right of Americans to be killed on the highways. He has solicited about 150 members of the House to co-sponsor his resolution to overturn Secretary of Transportation Brock Adams’ re­cent decision requiring the auto manufacturers to provide consumers with automatic safety systems. Most of Shuster’s co-sponsors are confirmed opponents of the auto safety law. We can thank Mr. Shuster for bringing them together for voter identification. Congress passed the legislation in 1966 to require the auto companies to build cars that would increase the survivability of human beings on the highways. Their metal­lic ideology applied to drugs would have fought laws preventing corpo­rate enterprise from selling thalido­mide to pregnant women. They must gnash their teeth over existing life­saving federal safety standards for steering columns (collapsible in a crash to avoid impaling the driver), windshields (less likely to lacerate faces and heads of accident victims) and padded dash panels (to minimize crushed skulls). How dare Uncle Sam do this to the auto companies?

ABOUT 20 OF the 150 co-sponsors do not fit in that cold-blooded cate­gory. They have been known to occa­sionally support consumer issues. So I called some of them for an explana­tion. One western Congressman hardly remembered he was a co­sponsor. Shuster tapped his shoulder one day on the House floor and he nodded. It took three minutes to ex­plain the case for manufacturers fit­ting their cars with automatic safety systems before he acknowledged that he had made a mistake. As is cus­tomary when Congressmen find themselves in such embarrassment, he would not take his name off of the resolution but he indicated he would vote against it.

Another mid-western Congress­man couldn’t even remember Shust­er’s name when he returned to his of­fice after giving his “uh huh” to Shuster’s invitation. Others acknowl­edged that they had not heard any of the overwhelming evidence behind these automatic safety systems, such as air cushions. One legislator said he went on the resolution because he mistakenly thought it was advancing auto safety. Shuster, like any politi­cian who represents corporations over people, says he is fighting to overturn the Adams decision because he doesn’t believe the air bag is ei­ther effective or cost efficient. Look, for example, at the diversity of those who disagree with those two asser­tions: all auto safety directors in the Department of Transportation since Lyndon Johnson; two top GM execu­tives both before and after they left the company; President Ford’s Secretary of Transportation William Coleman; conservative columnist George Will; virtually the entire insurance industry; the United Auto Workers; consumer groups specializ­ing in auto safety; the public at large as shown in Gallup poll results; and the AAA.

The AAA, in a commendable change of mind on July 1, 1977, sup­ported mandatory “installation of passive restraint crash-protection systems in all automobiles.” A spokesman even added that AAA would like to see these systems in­stalled in all models sooner than the leisurely 1982 to 1984 schedule per­mitted by Secretary Adams.

SHUSTER IS MAKING wild and reckless charges against the air bag in an attempt to camouflage his pen­chant for championing the causes of big business. Already tested on 12,000 cars which have traveled 500 million miles, air bags have never failed to inflate in a crash. They have saved lives and injuries. Once on all cars they will save more in insurance premiums than the small initial cost (less than the price of a vinyl roof) to the motorist. Shuster’s pseudo-fig­ures try to show that cars with air bags may be less safe than today’s cars with unused belts. He claims that 44 percent of all motorists now use their seat belt-shoulder harness.

He should watch a few thousand cars go by on the highway if he wants a quick refutation of that absurd claim.

Crash-tested again and again in, both industry and government prov­ing ground tests, air bags have undergone more reliability measures than any previously promulgated government auto safety standard for new equipment. Moreover, Secretary. Adams’ performance standard does­n’t require air bags, as Shuster re­peatedly errs in stating. Air bags are only one of several ways the car makers can choose to meet the per­formance standard four to six lei­surely years from now.

Auto companies opposed to Adams’ decision are publicly steer­ing clear of Shuster, in part due to the extremism that he displays. But privately Ford Motor Company, ac­cording to Shuster’s aide, is ‘sup­porting us . .informing their people . . . . The Ford Motor Company has been very helpful.” This is the same Ford Motor Company whose boss, Henry Ford, II, said in April: “And we build lots of lousy cars, no question about it; can’t deny that.”

Neither can we, Henry.

(Readers interested in materials on automatic Crash Protection, 1220 19th St., N.W., Suite 201, Wash., D.C. 20036.)