Insurance Companies Want Safer Autos

For an insurance company president, he was most articulate. Perhaps it is because he had an important finding to communicate as he held a news conference in Washington earlier this month. Robert F. McDermott, president of a large automobile insurer, the United Services Automobile Association in San Antonio, was releasing a report on car safety comparisons to his company’s 1 million policyholders.

Of the 19 cars (1978-80) models with the best safety records, McDermott said, all are domestics. Of the 17 with the worst experience, 13 are Japanese-made. Occupants of subcompact cars are more than twice as likely as people in full-size cars to die in single-vehicle crashes. “We felt compelled to let our policyholders know that current technology exists to make these cars without sacrificing energy efficiency,” McDermott concluded.

He listed a few of the long-available safety features which will save lives and dollars, including non-lacerating windshields, child restraints, air bags, automatic belts and cushioned interiors.

You would think that the U.S. auto companies would have been delighted with these findings–based as they are on real-world collision data compiled by the Department of Transportation and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS). Instead, they bridled. On the McNeil/Lehrer TV report, representatives of the auto companies spent their time trying to pick apart the report. McDermott coolly and rationally replied point by point.

It has long been apparent that the auto companies do not like to compete over safety even if particular companies produce cars that are marginally safer in crashes than their competitors. Such sensible competition that prevents highway casualties could start a race with the Japanese who, jarred by these findings, might go back to the design boards and come up with greater safety.

Dreary as this auto industry syndrome is, the hopeful signs come from an increasingly aroused insurance industry fed up with the highway carnage, the resulting claims and the automakers’ refusal to apply known safety technology, such as the air bag, developed by their own engineers. Led by more farsighted executives from Allstate, State Farm and the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, the insurers are developing growing resistance to the auto companies’ intransigence.

The insurers see a rapidly mounting highway traffic toll because of the increasing volume of small cars. They know that it is far easier to build crash-worthy cars than to try to remove drinking, sleepy, negligent, overburdened drivers from the roads and assure perfect highways, weather and mechanical performance of vehicles. They know that the vehicle is the last protective line of defense in a crash. Many of the insurance companies want to buy air bags for their company fleets, but no auto company will sell them any.

When GM secured the revocation of the all-important crash protection standard by the Department of Transportation last October, State Farm retained a major Washington law firm and filed suit to overturn the revocation and reinstate the lifesaving rule. Joining State Farm in court is the National Association of Independent Insurers, the American Public Health Association, the Epilepsy Foundation of America and the American College of Preventive Medicine.

Now if other insurance companies would join the leadership roles of the aforementioned companies, together with the grass-roots power of the insurance agents, a powerful health and safety lobby could operate against the callousness of industrial giants who place unreasonable risks in their products and processes.

In both the short and long run, people, business and the economy would benefit. Only a few routines and myopias of a handful of executives would be perturbed.

For more information on the latest car safety findings, write to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Watergate 600, Washington, D.C. 20037.

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