Road to Ruin

What started as a major motor vehicle lifesaving proposal in 1969 under the Nixon Administration was destroyed in one minute by the Reaganites Friday, Oct. 24, 1981. The tragic event took place at the Department of Transportation, where Reagan’s puppet traffic safety administrator, Raymond A. Peck, rescinded the crash-protection regulations which soon was to go into effect.

Peck indeed was a puppet on a long chain, reaching to Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis, then to budget director David Stockman, then to President Ronald Reagan, and finally to the big boss behind the scenes, Roger Smith, head of General Motors.

All four men repeatedly had attacked the principle that the law should require the auto companies to provide standard safety equipment (either air bags, passive belts or other equivalent systems) that keep motorists in frontal-type crashes from going into windshields, steering assemblies, steel or hard plastic. To them, it did not matter that three previous administrations—Nixon’s, Ford’s and Carter’s—believed in the air bag technology. Nor did it matter that the Standard 208, as it is called, received the support of auto engineers in the auto companies, the insurance industry, consumer groups, medical associations, the United Auto Workers and even the AAA and the National Safety Council.

What Peck was going to decide was predetermined by these four men. But how Peck was going to explain dropping a safety rule that was massively cost-effective, highway tested in 12,000 automobiles and enthusiastically supported by former GM president Ed Cole and former GM vice president John DeLorean.

Peck started by saying that he believed deeply in auto safety and therefore he was terminating the crash-protection standard. It sounded like a non-sequitur, but let Peck finish his case. If he maintained the 208 standard as all his senior staff urged him to do, the auto companies, he observed, would comply not by installing air bags but by attaching passive belts. These belts, which protect you when you close the door, come with an easily detached mechanism for motorists who reject them.

There was insufficient evidence, Peck asserted, to conclude that people would not detach these belts in great numbers possibly equivalent to the 89 percent of motorists who presently do not use their conventional belts. As a consequence, Peck decided that the standard was not worth the cost (he uncritically ac­cepted an industry estimate of $1 billion) and that it was not worth incurring a congressional backlash.

One veteran agency analyst called Peck’s ex­planation a “contrivance.” First, there are nearly 500,000 automobiles (VWs and Chevettes) that have passive belts. About 80 percent of Volkswagen owners with such belts keep them intact. On recent Chevettes the passive belts are detachable, yet about 70 percent of owners do not detach them. Even if these belts came as standard equipment, recent experience warrants the belief that the percentage not detached would significantly exceed the present belt usage of 11 percent.

Peck acknowledged there were people who would n$ bother to buckle their old belts but would accept the, passive belts. What he did not point out are the parents who would welcome the passive belts to restrain their children, and those companies and agencies which, to contain costs and job losses would make it “policy” not to detach the passive belts in company cars. He also avoided noting that several hundred thousand large cars with bench front seats would have been equipped with air bags in the first year to start the momentum toward the superior system. Although tests show that air bags are better at high-speed collisions than passive belts, the reduction in casualties in VW passive-belt-equipped cars has been impressive nonetheless.

Most revealing of Peck’s true intent to rupture the entire automatic safety-standard process was that, instead of amending the standard to meet his declared concerns, he dumped it completely. In one fell swoop, he signaled to the automakers that there was to be no continuity to this 12-year effort, that another proposal would have to start all over and that the traffic safety administrator willingly gave up all his bargaining power with the industry.

Since Peck took office, everything he and Secretary Lewis have done to the traffic safety agency has been in on direction—backward. He is dropping numerous safety standards. He wants to let car companies go back to bumpers that protect cars only up to 2.5 mph crashes instead of the current 5 mph rule

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