Small Questions

It came like a thunderbolt from Zeus–the unanimous decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals reversing Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis’ order rescinding the auto crash protection standard last October. Lewis told me the next day that he would have no comment until he studied the 76-page opinion.

Were he to read the three-judge court’s analysis of his department’s dropping of the life-saving standard as “lawless action” and as “an expensive example of ineffective regulation of the worst kind,” Secretary Lewis might receive an education that was sorely lacking last year when he acted to destroy a level of efficient car safety 10 years overdue.

The standard which Lewis destroyed, under the demanding insistence of GM, Ford and Chrysler, would have required all car makers to engineer their cars to reduce the possibility of motorists’–children, women and men–crashing through windshields or into steel or hard plastic during frontal collisions. The companies could do this any way they wanted. Their engineers preferred the installation of air bags because of their superior and automatic protection at higher speeds than automatic belts.

When Ronald Reagan, George Bush, David Stockman and Lewis came into office, the top command from Detroit was to dump this Standard 208, as it is called. Lewis dutifully did so, but his pitifully empty and distorted rationale never cleared the federal court of appeals. The case was brought by State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., which claimed that Lewis’ ruling was arbitrary, capricious and unlawful. The court agreed emphatically, reversed the ruling and told Lewis to come back in 30 days, either with a reasoned position for rescinding a standard 10 years in the making or a plan to implement the auto safety law in this area of crash protection.

What disturbed the judges was the Transportation Department’s groundless claim that because it expected the auto companies to meet the rule by installing detachable automatic seat belts instead of air bags, there was no more added safety protection than having no standard. In fact, companies whose large cars were under the first-stage application of the standard were going to use air bags instead ‘of automatic belts. Mercedes already had announced its intention to do so.

More important was the fact that the standard could be met with practical, tested and effective safety systems. The federal judges summed up their verbal thrashing of Lewis with these words: “Essentially, the agency seems to conclude that because some technology will not meet the passive restraint standard, it need not mandate compliance by technology that will. The absurdity of this Orwellian reasoning is obvious.”

Secretary Lewis now has a second opportunity to help save hundreds of thousands of American casualties in the next decade. The court pointedly noted that “one in every 60 children born today is expected to die in an automobile accident, and two out of every three will suffer injuries in a crash.” If anything can get through the stony, coldblooded Lewis and his rigid, anti-government, pro-big business ideology, it should be those grim statistics.

The court battle over the crash protection standard featured an instructive alignment that dissolved some stereotypes. Supporting State Farm was the United Auto Workers. Representing State Farm was the Washington corporate law firm of Arnold and Porter.

Supporting Secretary Lewis were Ford Motor Co., which is spending hundreds of thousands of dollars in newspaper ads telling the public it is going back into auto racing, and General Motors, which is facing a revolt by lemon Cadillac owners and indignant Cadillac dealers. The lawyer for GM and Ford is Lloyd N. Cutler, who was counsel to President Carter, whose administration issued the contested safety standard.

It is a reflection of the inordinate power of a few top auto executives, such as Roger Smith and James MacDonald of General Motors, that saving the lives of Americans with solid American engineering (that also saves money) still is under corporate siege.

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