In spite of the fact that 145 fatalities occur each day on the nation’s highways, and thousands more are injured, the future of the federal auto-safety program is in doubt. The new secretary of transportation, Drew Lewis, is adding to the uncertainty over this lifesaving program with a remarkable zigzag verbal performance over the last few weeks.
In January, at his confirmation hearing, Lewis told the Senate Commerce Committee that the federal auto-safety agency may be at the point of diminishing returns as far as achieving reductions in motor-vehicle casualties. This assertion, made with typical Reaganite generality, contrasts with technical studies and tests by Lewis’ own department that show great potential for safety-engineering advances which also save motorists money.
A couple of days later, Lewis told a veteran House of Representatives staff member that he wanted to “de-fang” the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA)—the department’s auto-safety agency. Those are the zigs.
Now come the zags. On Jan 24, Lewis told a visitor that what he meant by “de-fang” was to strip the agency of any “nitpicking” regulations. He mentioned no examples.
At a press conference Jan. 28, Lewis assured inquiring reporters that his department was “going to continue our efforts in auto-safety,” that he had “no intention whatsoever to eliminate the NHTSA” and that “we want to have in this administration, the safest possible automobiles we can have.”
A few days later came the zigs again. Secretary Lewis announced a one-year delay in saving the lives and limbs of thousands of Americans by postponing implementation of the passive-restraint standard. This standard had first been proposed back in 1969 by Nixon’s transportation secretary, John Volpe, who recommended it for 1972 implementation. Why Lewis’ postponement? To give him time to “review the overall regulation,” he stated, adding that auto sales “are seriously stunted by inflation and high interest rates” and that such a safety standard “would aggravate those problems.”
Lewis made no mention of the fact that when his predecessor, Brock Adams, issued the standard in 1977, to be effective in a phased, three-year cycle starting with 1982 cars, he was following the exact timetable requested by General Motors. Instead, the implication of Lewis’ decision was that the downward sales curve of the domestic auto companies would be used to justify an upward casualty curve on the highways.
But it was later, in Los Angeles, at the convention of the National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA) that Secretary Lewis really bared his teeth, putting the final flourish on this zigzag performance. Responding to a NADA resolution calling for a two-year moratorium on all environmental and safety regulations for the auto industry, he replied, “If I could do it, it would be a four-year moratorium.” He added, “I know four years is unrealistic, but my point is that this administration opposes regulations.”
So shocking were Lewis’ reported statements to the NADA meeting that my associate called Lewis’ office to confirm them. A Lewis spokesman confirmed their accuracy.
Ronald Reagan and Drew Lewis do not make the laws. Congress is the legislator. These men may implement them within discretionary limits, but to assert a de facto revocation of laws designed to reduce death, injury and disease throughout the land is a dismaying harbinger of the future behavior of the Reagan administration.
Many of the Reagan budget cuts and deregulation moves are cruel political statements without a shred of economic justification.
Under the guise of appealing slogans like “eliminating overregulation,” Reagan and his associates are bent on stripping your government of the ability and resources to defend the citizenry from fraud, pollution, dangerous products and inflationary monopolistic practices. The National Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and other business lobbies want just that to happen. Their chosen man for this mission is the former actor, former General Electric spokesman, Ronald Reagan, who was hand-picked by a group of Southern California multimillionaires years ago to increase corporate power over the government. Now called his “kitchen cabinet,” they continue to meet with him regularly over dinner to insure the value of their investment.