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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > GM Seat Belt Drive Merely a Smoke Screen to Kill Air Bags

General Motors, with the backing of “government off your backs” Ronald Reagan, is lobbying to enact mandatory seat belt use laws in dozens of states. Using his own agents and working through front groups, GM’s Chairman, Roger Smith, whose company once opposed mandatory three point seat belt installation in the late Sixties, privately boasts that he will persuade states containing over two-thirds of the U.S. population to pass these laws within a year to require people to buckle up.
This sudden GM-Reagan drive has less than noble motivations. Last July Reagan issued an auto crash protection standard in response to the U.S. Supreme Court’s unanimous ruling that his 1981 revocation of the standard was unlawful. This time he wrote the standard with a giant loophole — namely that if states with two-thirds of the population passed seat belt laws, the federal standard covering the entire country would be revoked. Rather than regulate some 15 auto manufacturers to engineer superior automatic crash protection, as with air bags, Reagan prefers to regulate 150 million Americans. GM sees this loophole as a major opportunity to stop a broad coalition of health, consumer and insurance groups who back air bags.

General Motors, with all its awesome billions and all its powerful dealer network and political action committee money, will lose.

There are two reasons for this prediction. First, GM’s own engineers helped perfect the air bag which is on 10,000 GM cars that have been on the highways for over ten years. In crashes, their air bags have worked just as expected to save lives and prevent injuries. Technically, therefore, GM has no argument against this life-saving technology, so company officials are wildly inflating the air bag’s costs. But air bag manufacturers counteract with estimates of $200 per car front seat as standard equipment.

For their part, insurance companies counter with proposed reductions of about $50 in annual insurance premium for each air bag equipped car. New York law presently requires an average reduction of $67 per car. What’s more, a new mechanical air bag that auto companies are now testing is half the installed price of the electronic air bag.

The second reason why GM will fail in its callous effort is that governmental and corporate buyers of cars will increasingly order air bag equipped cars from Ford Motor Company-party line. Already, the U.S. government has ordered and is receiving delivery of its 5000 air bag cars from Ford. Officials from Ford were in Washington recently to highlight this event.

About the same time, the Travelers Insurance Company publicized its order of 600 1985 Ford Tempos with air bags by a two day display of air bags and other crash protection equipment at its corporate headquarters in Hartford.

“We’re proud to be able to initiate this action to protect our own people who drive company cars on Travelers business and to serve as an example for all motorists and other safety minded corporations,” said Frank E. Walton, Travelers executive vice president. GM expressed its displeasure to Travelers representatives in Detroit.

The large auto insurer, USAA of San Antonio, Texas, State Farm and Allstate are buying similarly equipped Ford Tempos for their company fleets.

In a few months, other insurance companies and some state government car fleet operators will be bringing their business to Ford. Mercedes will announce that air bags will be standard equipment on their cars (now it is optional). Some GM dealers will be objecting to the technologically reactionary image that their company is receiving in wider circles. Arid some GM directors will be more than mumbling about the obstructionism that is attaching to the world’s largest and most stubborn auto manufacturer.

So, Roger Smith, before your annual shareholders’ meeting in May, why not decide to buckle on air bags and save your company the embarrassment of having to follow more than one car company in a sheepish fashion. By the way, lots of American lives also would be saved, if that matters to you.