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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Air Bag Decision

The press conference room at the Department of Transportation was jammed with reporters, some of whom had an accurate sense of deja vu. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole was announcing the automatic crash protection standard — commonly mis-described as the air bag rule — fifteen years after the Department’s first such proposal in 1969.
The two men who made her decision — Roger Smith, chairman of General Motors and Ronald Reagan — were not present. She took the burden and called the standard “Elizabeth Dole’s decision.”

The auto companies would be required to install automatic crash protection for all passenger. cars or a phased-in schedule beginning with 1987 cars. But only 10% of the cars that year have to be equipped, increasing to 25 percent the next year, 40% the following year and finally all cars produced for the 1990 model year. The crash protection level that must be met a 30 mph fixed barrier collision. Air bags, automatic belts or other equivalent technology can be used to meet the standard, although car makers say they will use automatic belts. Each car equipped with air bags can court as one and a half cars meeting the rule’s car quota for the phase-in years.

For an Administration whose president openly campaigned against auto safety standards in 1980, even this modest standard can surprise observers who neglect to take a closer look at the built in trojan horses.

Following a stinging, unanimous U.S. Supreme Court decision last year declaring unlawful Reagan’s revocation of the crash protection standard in 1981, just before it was to start saving lives, one might hake expected at least a reinstatement of this standard seven year’_ after it was I sued by the Carter Administration in 1977. No way. First, the 30 mph crash level is grossly obsolete. Auto companies who put some air bags in cars over eleven years ago reached a 40 mph crash protection level.

Second, the federal auto safety law is based on uniform national standards. Why then should long proven safety devices only be put on 10% of cars in 1987 model year when the auto companies have been able to install this technology over a decade ago and have been on notice for that length of time. Ninety percent of new car buyers receive no protection. In the 1988 model year, seventy five percent receive no protection. What are Reagan and Dole doing playing such deadly games with human life and limb just to cater to the leisurely schedules of callous auto executives?

As if the basic immorality of such roulette policies was riot enough, the Reagan rule sets itself up for destruction if, by 1989 states with two-thirds of the U.S. population pass mandatory seat belt usage laws. Let’s assume this event occurs. Then the federal crash protection rule, designed to protect after Sept. 1989 new car buyers in all states, is rescinded, according to Secretary Dole. What about the 75 million Americans uncovered by, state seat belt laws? She did not address herself to that question.

Such incoherent, irrational, arbitrary classifications and contradictions led State Farm Insurance Company to file suit immediately in federal court to declare the Reagan rule unlawful. To delegate to the states the combined power to destroy a federal standard providing for the possibility of air bag technology — a far superior life-saving system for more front seat occupants at higher collision speeds — is a grotesque piece of regulatory revisionism.

Picture this scene: suppose well intentioned citizens in states who believe in both seat belt laws and air bags as standard equipment are working for state seat belt laws. These people, due to the Reagan rule, would be working, against their will, to destroy the entire federal standard by 1989 including air bag installation, just when it is going into full effect.

It would take a political psychiatrist to begin to figure out why Reagan put seat belt usage laws on a search and destroy mission against air bags simply because GM is against air bags. The two approaches are complementary, not antagonistic or. fungible. Seat belt usage laws — though likely to be faced with wide non-compliance and necessary exemptions for very large or small persons — will save lives for the vehicles. now on the road. But they must not, as Governor Mario Cuomo stated when he signed the New York state usage law this month, be misused against the more effective air bags. State legislators in Connecticut and New Jersey repeated the Governor’s point. A new Gallup poll reports that Americans favor mandatory air bags by a two to one margin.

By this point, readers who own light trucks, mini vans, jeeps and other four-wheel-drive vehicles, which account for 25% of all U.S. passenger vehicle sales this year, may be wondering Such what this safety regulation does to protect them. Nothing. vehicles are not included under the federal standard. Moreover, if the Reagan plan plays as he wants, neither will passenger car motorists be protected by automatic crash safety engineering. For Mr. Reagan would rather regulate 200 million Americans in cars in order to avoid requiring a dozen auto companies to install a far superior life saving system in all new vehicles.