Air Bag Decision

“I’m not a regulatory torpedo,” said Raymond Peck, coal industry lawyer, soon after Ronald Reagan appointed him to head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). “This job involved matters of life or death,” he added, by way of distinguishing his admitted anti-regulatory bias in economic matters.

After four months officially on the job, Peck is on the verge of unleashing a big torpedo directly at a major life-saving crash protection requirement first proposed in 1969 by the Nixon administration no less. If he plays submarine, more hundreds of thousands of American children, women and men will die or be seriously injured in motor vehicle crashes who otherwise could be saved. If he stands tall as the nation’s chief motor vehicle safety officer, the burden of condemning those innocent people will fall on his superiors.

Peck’s bosses want him to make the bloody decision and incur the stigma of history. Better to have a low-level produce the garbled casuistry against these highway-proven crash protection systems than have Ronald Reagan, George Bush, David Stockman or Drew Lewis render the verdict. All of these men have publicly stated their opposition to auto safety stan­dards and in particular this crash protection standard. On the campaign trail last year, Reagan and Bush seemed determined to defend the freedom of motorists to go through their windshields in a crash. Tyranny they defined as an instantly inflating air bag or passive belt intercepting the person from ex­tinction.

Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis em­barrassed Peck on at least two public occasions, one at a congressional hearing when he declared that no vehicle safety standards would he issued in the next’ four years. Transportation secretaries are not sup­posed to prejudge safety proceedings under federal law.

To diminish this aura of prejudgment by his superiors, Peck held public hearings Aug. 6 and 7 on what has come to be known as passive restraint standard 208. Back in 1977 then-Transportation Secretary Brock Adams gave the auto companies an unprecedented four- to six- year lead time to phase in either passive belts, air bags or equivalent engineering in large, middle-size and small cars in that order. The auto companies pledged to comply.

This time, however, the companies read Reagan’s signals. One after another, GM, Ford, Chrysler, VW and Toyota gave the industry line. Passive belts and air bags are not acceptable, not workable and too expensive, their spokesmen intoned. It would be better, they said, to have a public education program urging people to wear their seat belts. But, in­terestingly, none of the five companies committed to shift a dollar of their billion-dollar-a-year advertising budgets toward such public education.

There were other witnesses, fortunately. Physicians, public health specialists, engineers, economists and consumer advocates offered sum­maries strongly supporting standard 208. The in­surance companies noted how reliably air bags have worked to save lives on the highway. (About 10,000 GM air bag-equipped cars from the model years 1974 to1976 were still on the highway.) Some in the audience remembered a few of these survivors—the grandmother and her two grandchildren saved in a Florida crash, a retired auto worker saved in Detroit, a physician struck by a bus saved in Kansas City—saved by air bags which in mass production could be installed for the entire front seat at a price of about $100.

The insurance company witnesses offered Peck some healthy indignation. After noting that motorists would see about $40 a year in insurance premium savings, Douglas Fergusson of Nationwide Insurance Co. summed it up: “We were appalled earlier this year when a one-year delay on automatic restraints was proposed and then ordered, and we are now bewildered that a full rescission of the standard is suggested. At a time when belt use is declining, small car use is increasing, highway speeds are on the rise, and all forecasts offer increased highway casualties, it is truly preposterous that we are today debating any option on this provision of safety standard 208.”

The auto industry’s air bag development engineers were absent. Their enthusiasm was not permitted to be part of company testimony. Nor were any of the survivors of crashes who were saved by air bags.

An observer from Mercedes, the only company offering air bags (in West Germany), told me his company would have testified if invited. But NHTSA did not seek their testimony. Peck listened and asked questions for two days. He knows that rescission of 208 would end industry research on automatic crash protection (GM already has shut down its facilities) and probably would close most air bag suppliers. Any momentum toward future, stronger standards at the 40 and 50 mph crash protection level also would be gone.

He also knows that he could reaffirm the 208 stan­dard with a ringing substantiation based on a 10-year record of evidence. One of two results then would occur: Secretary Lewis could approve Peck’s decision or reject it. If he did the latter, Peck could resign and become a coal lawyer again, all the while keeping his self respect in refusing to be a regulatory puppet who strip-mined the lives of thousands of Americans on the highways.

Perhaps a recent report from California would help Peck take the high road. Two young sisters were killed and another seriously injured when their compact car was struck head-on by another car in Los Angeles recently. With air bags they would have walked away and resumed normal life. Mr. Peck, don’t you be the one to cut the thread of life for so many people in the future.

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