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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > GM, Dingell Nix Airbag Mandate

Starting in the early 1980s, tens of thousands of Americans may be killed or seriously injured in auto crashes every year if a congressman’s and a corporation’s callous moves are not exposed and stopped.

The congressman is John Dingell–a mean-tempered legislator long indentured to the Big Three auto companies–who has been attacking the proven airbag safety system and is now plotting to secure the congressional overruling of the entire Department of Transportation’s Standard 208. This is the major safety standard to save the lives of many motorists who otherwise would be plunged forward into metal and glass during a frontal crash.

Legislating trauma and disease is nothing new to the Michigan legislator. Dingell worked overtime in 1976 to achieve a delay of the already delayed motor vehicle pollution controls. What is new in the current effort is that the auto companies are staying behind the scene instead of propping up their House puppet in public. It is difficult for the auto companies to associate themselves with Dingell’s wild and inaccurate assaults on the Department of Transportation (DOT).

Grossly misusing a testing company report purloined by an ex-employee, Dingell made such unsupportable charges against DOT that even auto company insiders considered them dirty pool.

Another reason for the auto companies staying in the shadows is more substantial. Airbags work. Already the first generation airbags on 12,000 cars with nearly a billion miles of travel have saved lives and prevented injury. These lifesavers and dollar savers have worked with excellent reliability and precision. And airbag development in the intervening five years has progressed well beyond the ones which GM, Volvo and Ford placed in those 12,000 cars.

Since the sanctity of life on the highway is not a motivating force among auto executives, Ford and Chrysler have been cool, if not hostile, to airbag use. The lone domestic exception was GM, largely due to the open enthusiasm for airbags by former GM President Edward Cole in the early ’70s. It was because of Cole that GM pledged in 1970 to install airbags in one million 1974 model cars and to make airbags standard equipment on all of its 1975 car, van and light truck lines. Reluctantly, Ford and Chrysler followed the industry giant with similar though not quite as ambitious pledges.

A Chrysler lawsuit against the government and a Ford connection with the Nixon White House led to postponement of government safety standards.

In 1975, Cole retired and new GM leadership decided to oppose or delay most federal regulations–be they in the safety, repair or pollution-control areas. But airbags were a tactical dilemma. To defeat airbags, GM had to impeach the evidence of its own airbag-equipped cars already on the highways.

“There are engineers and there are politicians in GM, and the politicians almost always win,” a GM employee once said to me. Today it appears the politicians, Chairman Thomas Murphy and President Pete Estees, are winning over the dedicated group of airbag engineers.

Early this month, GM revealed its hand.

The auto company asserts that recent tests (using pigs, not human-shaped dummies) raise questions about airbags’ effects when unrestrained small children, who are positioned in a particular way between the dash panel and the floor, are exposed to panic braking. It will be necessary, GM told the Department of Transportation, to delay optional airbags in 1980 models and possibly later ones. The government standard goes into effect for large cars in the 1982 model year. Should airbags not be installed, passive belts (close your door and the belt is in place) will be the only alternative used by the companies.

GM’s intent becomes clear. People will disconnect the belt, as they did with the interlock belt a few years ago. And early in this decade, Ford Motor Co. successfully pressed the Nixon White House to postpone airbags by requiring the ignition interlock belt system.

Chrysler vice president Sid Terry has informed Capitol Hill staffers that this could happen again, with a backlash to the passive belt resulting in Congress rejecting Standard 208.

The insurance industry and the airbag manufacturers vigorously dispute this latest GM maneuver. Since both of these industries will bare the ultimate legal liability if airbags are deficient, their support for this safety system has enhanced credibility.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has prepared a rebuttal to GM’s spurious tests which is available to interested citizens. (Write to NHTSA, 400 7th St. SW, Washington, D.C. 20590.)

GM and Congressman Dingell should rethink their behavior. An opportunity to reduce dramatically the carnage on highways is at hand. It would be a colossal tragedy if the motoring public, the government and the airbag supporters in industry were to fail to stop this insidious attempt against airbag technology.