The Air Bag Dust

General Motors’ top bosses, Thomas Murphy and “Pete” Estes, could save a million lives and prevent millions of serious injuries worldwide in the next 30 years.

This preservation of life and limb is long overdue. Many highway casualty losses in the ’70s could have been averted if GM had put air bags on all its cars by the fall of 1974, as former GM president Edward Cole, in 1970, promised would occur. But apparently these two present leaders of the giant automaker are not very interested in that kind of leadership role for the rest of the auto industry.

GM, which in the mid-’70s sold some 10,000 air bag-equipped automobiles, is perilously close to abandoning this great lifesaving technology. And if GM jettisons the air bag, most of the world­wide auto companies will continue to reject this safety system for their cars.

To meet the U.S government’s 1982 to 1984 phase-in passive restraint standard, these companies will use automatic belts. Many motorists are likely to disconnect these belts. Also, at higher speeds, they are less effective than air bags.

The only exception to this potential GM-led domino sequence is Mercedes-Benz, which has informed the Depart­ment of Transportation that it will equip all 1982-model Mercedes sold in the United States with full front-seat air bag systems.

Wonderful as this news is, Mercedes’ annual sales volume of some 50,000 is not likely to induce other car manufacturers to do likewise. That role belongs to General Motors..

On March 5, GM’s director for auto­motive safety engineering sent a ten-page statement to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration that chilled officials in that already cowed agency. David Martin said that his company “currently does not plan to offer inflatable restraints (air bags) in medium- or small-size cars.”

That declaration seemed to mean that GM is going with passive belts; it reminded me of a previous statement by the same David Martin in 1977 to the same agency, as follows: “While General Motors has evaluated various passive belt system concepts over the years, we have seen none that would be acceptable to the majority of our customers…the passive belt system will not offer the convenience of the air cushion (air bag) system. The presence of the passive belt may be looked on unfavorably by a significant number of people, leading them to disconnect the system.”

I called Estes and asked him whether Martin’s statement meant that GM was dropping air bags. He denied that to be the case, but repeatedly emphasized that “economics” was the problem. At a volume of 200,000 cars, he estimated the retail price to be around $600. He urged insurance companies to give greater premium reductions to motorists with air bag-equipped cars and the government to provide tax credits like those offered for home insulation to save energy.

In 1976, the Department of Transpor­tation, relying on an analysis of a former GM vice president, estimated the price of the full front-seat air bag at $112. In the fall of 1977, GM used a figure of $193. Now the company is quoting the staggeringly high price of $600. One manufacturer of air bag components called this “an outrageous markup,” saying that a good profit could be made around the $250 range. An insurance specialist added that in a few years the price would be absorbed in the overall car price the way collapsible steering columns now are.

GM has solved the remaining minor technical problems that it claimed still were associated with air bags. The company also admits it can put air bags. in any size car that it manufactures. Cars with air bags sold in 1973 that have worked excellently in frontal crashes illustrate that from the beginning these automatic cushions were well designed. The new genera­tion of air bags is even better.

Why, then, given such a marvelous engineering performance, is GM trying to avoid air bags with falsely inflated price figures? It boils down to a lack of vision and leadership. There is nothing more important for Murphy and Estes to do for GM and humanity before they retire than to take the rest of the auto industry with them to air bags as standard equipment. Just as brakes stop cars, air bags stop people from smashing into windshields or dash panels. Unlike unused shoulder belts, air bags always are in use when needed.

As more Americans buy smaller cars, fatality and injury tolls will increase. In 1979, 85 percent of all fatalities in big car-small car collisions occurred in small cars. Air bags are needed more than ever. This is why the entire insurance industry, warning about the casualty toll rise, is behind air bags.

So GM, Murphy and Estes, are at a historic crossroads. They can go with passive belts, prompting widespread disconnection by motorists and com­plaints to Congress that may result in the destruction of the entire crash protection standard. Or they can go with air bags (small cars have been developed with air bags effective at 50-mph barrier crash intensity) and usher the automotive world into a more humane technology.

To choose the latter course means taking a global, humanitarian approach. Applying the golden rule here will give them a place in history. It would be good for both GM and the people of this country.

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