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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > New Airbag Developed, at Lower Cost, for Crash Protection

A small New Jersey company, the Breed Corporation out of Lincoln Park, has developed a simple, reliable, less costly automatic crash protection system to save the lives of motorists. Called the Breed airbag module, it uses a mechanical system instead of the present airbag systems that operate with sensors which are crash activated electric switches.

Breed has crash-tested their mechanical airbag extensively, showed it to an impressed group of General Motors’ engineers and further advanced the cause of safety advocates who believe that frontal vehicle crashes on the highway need not be injurious or fatal to occupants.

Going back to an al l -mechanical crash sensor/initiator, located within the gas generator in the car’s steering wheel, illustrates the old maxim that simple engineering is very often the best engineering. Breed company spokesman, Thomas McGrath, says that their airbag model “would eliminate the need for all remote located crash sensors, associated wiring, electrical connectors and condensers, rings, the electric squib, and the electronic diagnostic system, along with their associated installation costs.” He adds: “Such a system would be far simpler, more reliable, and dramatically less costly than present day airbag systems.”

Airbag suppliers have testified that the auto companies can make a nice profit selling electronic-type, air bags for the entire front seat in volume production for $200 per car. (Other estimates are lower). The Breed airbag could sell for as little as $65 per car. It could, that is, if GM’s chief, Roger Smith, was interested in saving lives and the consumer’s insurance dollars.

But GM’s Goliath-like dominance over auto industry safety policy may be ending. For one thing, the Breed air bag makes it easier to retrofit the vehicles you are now driving, because all that is required is the substitution of an airbag steering wheel module for the standard steering wheel, according to McGrath.

The Breed breakthrough has even excited Raymond Peck, who left recently the job as Reagan’s chief, immediate destroyer of the federal auto safety standards program. Peck, it will be remembered, was the man who in 1981 announced the repeal of the crucial federal standard 208. This Reagan-Peck decision was subsequently held illegal by a unanimous Supreme Court. Peck told me that the Reagan regime would “love to find a way out” and that this cheaper mechanical system might just be the answer.

From Phoenix, Arizona, a joint American-Japanese company by the name of Romeo-Kojo is fulfilling a Department of Transportation contract to fit with air bags 500 state police cars. According to the company’s representative, Arthur Mobley, they have the capability of retrofitting government or corporate vehicle fleets with an electronic system that has produced unsurpassed test results. He says the price drops sharply as the retrofitted fleet grows in number.

Both Allstate Insurance Company and a large insurance cooperative selling to veterans called United Services Automobile Association (San Antonio, Texas) already have indicated that they will buy airbag-equipped cars for their fleets. Allstate bought 600 such cars from General Motors in the mid-Seventies when retired GM President, engineer Ed Cole, was enthusiastically supporting airbag technology before his successors reversed his policy.

Allstate vice-president, Donald Schaffer, was delighted with these cars. He should know, as he testified recently before the U.S. Senate: “I am one of the Allstaters who has directly benefited from the air bag, having been involved in a serious accident while driving a 1974 Olds Toronado equipped with GM’s superb system. I experienced no injuries.”

GM’s air bag system was refined by a team of GM scientists and engineers who were disbanded in April 1981 by GM chairman, Roger Smith. He doesn’t like air bags because they are associated with Washington and could give safety regulation a very high credibility.

But Roger Smith’s disbanded air bag specialists may get another chance, in spite Roger Smith. Ford Motor Company is bidding to sell 5000 airbag equipped cars to the federal government. Gerald Carmen, the head of the General Services Administration, which is the government’s buying agency, is determined to use the government’s buying power to nudge the auto companies into selling air bags to motorists. Mercedes-Benz is offering air bags as options on six of its ten 1L984 Mercedes models.

These developments raise the hope that 14 years after the air bag was ready as standard equipment in cars, American motorists and their children, in this decade, may find themselves automatically protected from going through windshields, steering columns or hard dashboards by an intervening, life-saving air cushion. While other smaller companies lead, lumbering lemon-prone, General Motors, which does not sweat the details, will be bringing up the rear in an airbag race it once led.