Collision Course for Standards

Like an alert puppet on a golden string, Washington lawyer Lloyd Cutler was at the Supreme Court recently arguing on behalf of his client, the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association, that the Court should approve the Reagan Administration’s revocation of the crucial crash protection standard in October 1981.

The Carter Administration issued this life-saving standard in June 1977 to take effect for large cars in 1982 model year, for middle-sized cars in 1983 model year, and for small-size cars for the 1984 model year. Cutler was Carter’s White House Counsel in the late Seventies. And Cutler’s law firm supported, before the U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the Carter auto safety standard against a challenge by consumer groups that it gave the auto companies too much lead time for compliance.

So why the switch? Cutler told the Supreme Court Justices should be free to resolve the matter, not the courts. But his opponent in the case, State Farm Mutual Insurance Company, stated in its brief, that Reagan’s political appointee, a former coal lawyer, admitted he overruled his entire expert staff when he revoked the safety rule just before it was slated to go into effect for 1982 large cars.

What has changed between the Carter years, when Cutler’s firm defended the standard and today when Cutler wants it destroyed is the content of his lucrative arrangement with the auto companies. In 1977 they wanted a four to six year lead time precisely because they hoped that someone more favorable to their callous position would replace Carter. They were right. Reagan was their man. They gave their orders to Cutler and, as a minion with a mien of authority, he carried them out.

Lest you think that Cutler does riot think for himself, it should be noted that he has always been most diligent in seeking status and respect. On occasion, his firm has represented some poor defendants. He helped to negotiate a treaty with Canada for the White House. He has been an active Yale Law School alumni. Now in his mid-Sixties, it is permissible to wonder why this very wealthy man is closing his 40 year legal career in such a demeaning manner when he could be a leader in the advancement of corporate justice, though certainly without fee.

Instead he is spending his time and influence smashing a legal standard that requires all auto companies to put in their cars automatic systems that keep motorists from crashing through their windshields or into hard steel or plastic during frontal collisions. Whether these technologies be air bags or automatic belts, there are already tens of thousands of cars on the highway with either of these systems and they have proved to be reliable life-savers.

State Farm Mutual’s brief to the Justices noted: “All three of the cost-benefit analyses submitted to NHTSA [the auto safety agency] by professional economists… concluded that thousands of deaths and tens of thousands of injuries would be prevented by the installation of passive restraints.” Using the Reaganites own figures, these three economists demonstrated that the benefits would far outweigh the costs. Indeed, several large insurance companies as far back as the mid-Seventies offered motorists with air-bag equipped cars a savings of $40 a year in premiums. In mass production, air bags for the entire front seat should cost no more than $125, just once.

Soon the Supreme Court will decide the fate of many thousands of American motorists and indirectly foreign motorists. Western Europe and Japan will not long delay installing crash protection systems if imported and domestically produced cars in the U.S. carry these devices. Justices Stevens and O’Connor, by their questions, seemed quite informed about the case. Others, like Justice Rehnquist appeared remote.

There is nothing remote about the consequences of a possible Supreme Court decision over-ruling the Circuit Court’s 1982 opinion which declared the Reagan revocation to be arbitrary and capricious. There would be more death and injury for children, women and men on U.S. highways. The auto companies’ own engineers perfected the air bag and other crash protection systems. General Motor’s own polls and three national polls (Gallup, Harris and Hart) show strong majority support for automatic safety systems.

Lloyd Cutler does not dispute the proven value of air bags or automatic belts. But he is just doing his job for his clients like a legal technician suffering from retainer astigmatism. No larger horizons for him.

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