Weaker Bumpers

The decision by Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis to weaken the bumper standard from protecting cars in 5-mph crashes, as presently is the case, to a 2.5-mph level has to be described as grotesque. With millions of Americans refusing to buy cars made by U.S. auto companies, the Reagan administration goes out of its way to encourage GM and company to further deteriorate the quality of their cars.

Secretary Lewis, a man who often makes decisions before he thinks, has done what General Motors has been demanding be done. He then proceeds to try to justify allowing the return of cream-puff bumpers on the grounds that they will save consumers money. The 2.5-mph bumper is protection of cars that crash at walking speed!

When such bumpers were on cars in the ’60s and early ’70s, the car makers had a field day selling replacement parts like fenders and headlamps that were damaged by a slight collision. The moguls in Detroit even have a phrase for this business–it is called the crash parts industry. These phony bumpers reached a level of absurdity where motorists were forced to buy bumper guards to guard the bumpers. Billions of dollars for higher repair bills and higher collision insurance costs were the result.

With the onset of the 5-mph crash standard for bumpers–front and rear–in the mid-1970s, the crash parts market did not fare as well. One insurance industry film shows why: a car model with today’s bumper showed no damage at a 5-mph collision, but the same car with a 2.5-mph bumper incurred nearly $500 worth of damage when crashed at 5 mph.

The domestic auto companies want more crash parts sales, which on a unit basis have been very profitable. Since they are having trouble selling new cars, they know that weaker bumpers will ring their registers in other ways. More damage-prone cars statistically also have accelerated the turnover to new car purchases.

This hidden rationale for a weaker bumper standard was camouflaged by Lewis’ claim that his decision would save $28 for consumers over the life of vehicle, when compared to the 5-mph bumpers. He figured this way: “The net $28 in benefits is based on vehicle price and fuel savings of $93, offset by an increase of $65 in higher repair insurance and other costs.”

Lewis assumes that the auto companies will graciously pluck out the dollar savings and return them to consumers–voluntarily of course. Hardly likely. In 1980, GM President Pete Estes indicated to high Transportation Department officials that if they eased the bumper standard, GM would keep the savings as part of their regulatory relief package.

More important, the insurance industry has conducted many studies and polls which point to a clear economic benefit for the 5-mph bumper. Lighter materials are being used for this bumper strength, thereby undercutting the fuel savings argument for the weaker bumper. The polls show overwhelming support by motorists for the 5-mph bumper even when the questions include a higher price for these bumpers than is the case.

Motorists also crank in the loss of their time and the aggravation incurred while going back and forth to the repair garage and their insurance agent.

The Reagan-Lewis bumper standard ruling will cost motorists about half a billion dollars a year if all the auto companies proceed to degrade their bumper down to the 2.5-mph level. It is hard to believe that the Japanese and German auto companies would be that foolish. But GM spokesmen have said that their cars would go to that level. Motorists may want to write presidents of companies about whether they are going todegrade to 2.5 mph.

Insurance industry sources responded to the Lewis decision by predicting a 15 to 20 percent increase in collision insurance premiums. Insurance companies should challenge the legality of this weaker bumper ruling in the courts as entirely arbitrary and capricious.

If you want a glimpse of the massive case against the 2.5 mph cream-puff bumper, simply write for the facts to Brian O’Neill, vice president of Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Watergate 600, Washington, D.C. 20037. O’Neill also will tell you about the previous support for the 5-mph bumper by the technical staff of the Department of Transportation,which Secretary Lewis disregarded.

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