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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Air Bag Hearings: Safety on the Road

Safety has the highest mandate in her administration, says Transportation Secretary, Elizabeth Hanford Dole. She then fails to preside over three days of Departmental hearings three blocks from her office in Washington on the most important safety decision she will be making — the automobile crash protection proposal.

Granted she did appear at earlier hearings held by the Department in Kansas, home state of her husband, Senator Robert Dole. But the Washington hearing were the major ones — replete with massive and varied support for air bags from medical, engineering, insurance and consumer groups. New polls of Americans showed continued strong support for automatic crash protection systems, including the inflatable air bag. More poignant were words by motorists saved by air bags which have been working excellently on the 12,000 cars equipped with these simple, inexpensive, life-saving devices.

Diane Steed, Dole’s auto safety administrator, appeared to be visibly moved by some of the testimony. She is usually known as a calculating, bureaucratic automation with a staunch adherence to the cruel dogmas of Reagan-Bush-Stockman. But then Louise McKnew of the National Spinal Cord Injury Association described what life is like for a quadriplegic and why it will cost about $5 million to sustain such an injured twenty year old person for the rest of his or her life. “All for lack of an airbag”, she exclaimed.

“In 1984, will the 10,000 Americans we expect to be paralyzed in car crashes be protected instead? Air bagS won’t help my son,” she said sorrowfully, “but they would help yours. Mandate automatic crash protection. Mandate it now,” she concluded.

Diane Huddle of the National Head Injury Foundation also seemed to reach Steed with her testimony: “Perhaps the hardest thing to watch are the late-middle aged mothers with nowhere to send their sons. So often damage to the frontal lobes of the brain produces irritability and irrationality. These mothers are raising their child all over again but this time the child learns slower and the trouble he gets into more tragic. Too often they are the real victims of frontal crashes in a way that if you have not ‘been there’, you cannot imagine. Spend a week in their homes and then tell me three hundred dollars is too much to spend on an air bag. Those who are strongly against air bags should spend some time in a trauma center emergency room on a Saturday night,” she suggested.

Diane Huddle’s policy position was clear: “We strongly favor mandating air bags not only to overcome the compliance issues that plague seat belt effectiveness, but also to prevent a phenomena of head injury for which seat belts offer little protection.”

Actually standard equipment air bags cost less than $200 for the entire front seat and save motorists’ more in insurance dollars. Soon a new mechanical air bag system will cost less than $100.

Many of the witnesses at the hearings Secretary Dole missed expressed indignation at the delays in saving American lives. Johns Hopkins Professor, Susan Baker, said: “It is now 14 1/2 years since Eaton, Yale and Towne Corp. made that film showing the life-giving potential of air bags. Since then, close to 400,000 front seat occupants of cars have been killed. Four hundred thousand! About 4 million men, women and children were injured so severely as front seat occupants that they had to be hospitalized.”

As one who has app eared at most of these air bag hearing rituals in the past ten years, Professor Baker was well informed when she said that the “Department of Transportation will never address another issue that involves sacrificing — or saving the lives of so many citizens.”

Secretary Dole has not reached her high governmental office by making hard decisions. Although she is a Harvard Law School graduate, she does riot like conflict situations and, is exceptionally sensitive to criticism. For the most part Dole has pursued a 15-year long government career of accommodation and amiability. This time, however, she cannot escape making a decision and yet, ironically, it is, at this point, not hers to make. Ronald Reagan and his White House expect to make the decision that she will announce next spring. Arid Mr. Reagan is taking his cue from Chairman Roger Smith of General Motors wants no government safety, pollution or fuel efficiency standards at all.

But Dole has significant leverage with the White House if she truly believes in air bags, as she says she does. There is a national election next year. Mr. Reagan needs Secretary Dole to campaign for him among women in order to narrow the political gender gap. Numerous national polls back a strong safety standard. Even Reagan adviser and conservative syndicated columnist, George Will, wants automatic air bags mandated.

Dole has chips to play Which Mr. Reagan cannot afford to counter. She just has to really make motorist safety her top priority, not just say. That is a distinction she can ponder as she drives around in an air bag equipped car which Ford Motor Company is leasing her Department next month.