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It was just before 3 p.m. on October 17 near Barnwell, S.C., when a 40-year-old man driving a 1972 Mercury went into insulin shock. The car shot forward toward the Savannah River nuclear facility, breaking through a metal chain link fence and striking several pine trees and a sign post before the vehicle rolled over. He survived with minor injuries because his car was equipped with an air bag.

This was not the first time that lives and injuries were saved by inflating air bags. About 12,000 automobiles built between 1972 and 1976 contain air bags–a device whose record in saving casualties during frontal crashes has been excellent.

General Motors stopped offering air bags as options in 1976. A known technological vaccine to diminish the epidemic on the highways was withdrawn by the auto industry’s leader following a change of top executives. This was the same GM which, under president Edward Cole, wrote the Department of Transportation (DOT) in August 1970 to say that by the fall of 1974 all GM cars and light trucks would have air bags.

Once GM suspended the air bag, the auto companies and politicians who opposed federal auto safety standards swung into opposition. The insurance of DOT’s passive restraint standard, effective over the 1982 to 1984 model years, did not slow this opposition. Due to Rep. John Dingell, D-Mich., the department’s latest appropriations bill was the subject of an amendment designed to hamper the motorist’s choice of air bags over passive belts when the federal standard goes into effect starting with large cars in the 1982 model year.

The pro air bag lobby, composed of an unlikely combination of consumer groups, insurance companies and survivors of crashes in air bag-equipped cars, has been active as well.

In a few days the contestants may be at it again. The two-year authorization bill for DOT’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration may come up before Congress goes home for the holidays. Dingell does not intend to lose another opportunity for an amendment to slow or stop this great life-saving engineering system. What is remarkable about Congress these days is its imperviousness to evidence, facts, citizen polls and the humane values which are reflected in advances that work.

But Congress will listen to GM. The giant company knows air bags work. A few weeks ago, GM raised a question about the air bag and unrestrained children in certain positions during a crash. Sources in GM before and after this issue was raised informed us that the company’s engineers had resolved the problem.

The stage is set for GM executives Thomas Murphy and Pete Estes to exercise the leadership for air bag applications that will save lives and prevent traumas year after year. For if GM tells Congress it is ready, other auto companies will have to follow suit.

As John DeLorean, former GM vice president, said in the just-released book, “On a Clear Day You Can See General Motors,” it is time for an “ethical” car.

Perhaps Rep. Tony Coelho, D-Calif., succeeded best in conveying what was at stake during a house floor statement opposing Dingell’s attack on the air bag a few weeks ago. Noting that traffic crashes were a major cause of epilepsy in America, Coelho, who quietly told his colleagues he has epilepsy, urged them to leave the air bag alone. However, by a vote of 228 to 185, Dingell won.

Before the next air bag vote, citizens may wish to check with their member of Congress to remind him or her of the facts of highway survival. For as commentator George Will once remarked, the air bag and “pitiless abstractions” do not mix.