Supreme Court Decision: Air Bags

In a surprise decision, the conservative Supreme Court of the United States has delivered a stern rebuke to Ronald Reagan’s October 1981 revocation of the auto crash protection standard. The Justices called the revocation “arbitrary and capricious” and an unlawful exercise of authority under the motor vehicle safety law. They ordered the Reagan Administration (through the Department of Transportation) to consider the safety standard further or reinstate it.

All nine Justices of the Court agreed that the Department acted unlawfully, though four of them did not go as far as the majority opinion written by Justice White. The Court’s decision was the first to tell the Reagan government that there are legal limits to de-regulatory fanaticism, that safety is the purpose of the auto safety law, and that Mr. Reagan and his associates cannot disregard cavalierly such a serious Congressional mandate.

Justice White, a former professional football player, had some rare urgency in his words when he wrote: “For nearly a decade, the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost–the inflatable restraint was proven sufficiently effective. Now the automobile industry has decided to employ a seatbelt system (detachable passive belts) which will not meet the safety objectives of Standard 208.” White went on to say that the Reagan government could not revoke a safety standard which can be satisfied by air bag technology “simply because the industry has opted for an ineffective seatbelt design.”

Responding to the Court’s judgement a few hours later, General Motors said that the decision was a narrow procedural one and riot a decision on the merits. What GM did not add was that its own engineers years ago made a favorable decision on the merits for the life-saving air bag and put it on their own families’ automobiles. But GM Chairman, Roger Smith, is standing on top of his huge company shouting cruel defiance at any attempts to install air bags.

If anyone has doubts about the power wielded over large corporations by chief executives, they should study the behavior of Roger Smith. Air bags are to Roger Smith what Moby Dick was to Ahab–something to be removed from the environment. Smith’s earlier superior, engineer Edward Cole, president of General Motors until 1974, wanted to put air bags in all GM cars, vans and light trucks. He reached retirement age before he could do so. But 10,000 GM air bag equipped cars found their way to market and their air bags have proved themselves reliable and effective in frontal collisions.

Smith dismisses this lifesaving breakthrough of his own engineers. He told his Washington lobbyists that there was to be no hope held out that air bags will ever be on GM cars. He disbanded, in the spring of 1981, GM’s crack air bag development unit. He has informed the General Services Administration, which wants to buy 5000 air bag equipped cars for government agencies by next year, that GM is not interested in selling. Instead, Ford Motor Company will bid and probably obtain the sizable order.

The Supreme Court has placed the opportunity to decide for the safety and pocketbooks of millions of American motorists on the shoulders of Ronald Reagan and his new Transportation Secretary, Elizabeth Dole. Administration sources say that Secretary Dole would like to issue a safety standard that keeps children, women and men from going through windshields, or worse, in frontal collisions on the highway. But these sources also say that the decision will not be hers but Ronald Reagan’s.

Actually the decision is also Roger Smith’s. Before his departure, Raymond Peck, Administrator of Reagan’s auto safety agency and the man who made the decision that the Supreme Court just over—ruled, told me that if GM Chairman Roger Smith alone decided for air bags, the entire auto industry selling in the U.S. would follow his lead.

Roger Smith claims he is a religious man. Are there any Bishops around Detroit who are willing to instruct him about the meaning of compassion and the Golden Rule?

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