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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Auto Safety Shouldn’t Be a Forgotten Loophole on the Books

It was 3 a.m. Saturday, two days after this past 4th of July on a rural two-lane road southwest of Irwinton, Georgia. Pulpwood laborer, Joseph Anderson, 26, was driving home in his 1974 Oldsmobile Delta 86. He did not know the road well; it was dark and when a sharp right turn came up Anderson kept going forward and crashed head on against a closely packed dirt embankment. At that split second, as the car was crumpling under the collision force, a sudden rendezvous unexpected by the driver occurred. Anderson met an air bag and survived a 50 mph crash with a bruised lip and some scratches.
Because he bought his Delta 68 on the used car market, he had no idea that the car was one of about 10,000 large GM cars sold in the mid-Seventies with air bags, before the new bosses at the company decided to reverse company policy and oppose air bags as part of their defiance of Washington’s auto safety standards program.

Anderson was utterly astonished: “That bag come out, hit me — big ol’ bag just Glowed up, knocked me back in the seat,” he told a reporter for the Macon Telegraph end News. “I ain’t never seen nothin’ like that. Only thing I ever seen, you know, was on TV. I seen it on TV, demonstrating it.”

Almost a decade ago GM stopped demonstrating, even as optional equipment, how this life-saving and dollar-saving safety device could prevent much bloodshed and many tragedies on the highway. The air bag, improved by its own engineers, is back on GM’s shelf.

Until recently, whatever GM did not do for safety, the auto industry did not do. But Mercedes has offered air bags as options in the US for more than a year. Arid, fortunately, for Melanie Stephenson, Ford Motor Co. also has begun to take a different road. Her employer, the Travelers’ Insurance

Company, provided her with an air-bag equipped Tempo automobile. On the morning of June 18, 1985 she was driving along a wet, narrow, winding and hilly road in Westport, Connecticut. On a blind curve, she saw a truck approaching in the opposite lane and trying to obtain more lateral space she braked her car, skidded to the left and into the path of the truck. The air bag instantly deployed. She survived with sore knees and minor bruises.

Travelers’ likes air bags. The company has purchased 1450 Tempos from Ford with the safety device. Aetna has just bought 600 similar Tempos. Allstate, State Farm and the United Services Automobile Association, a large auto insurer for veterans, have ordered several hundred Tempos. The New York state government is having air bags installed in several dozen new cars they are ordering and General Services Commissioner, John Egan is encouraging his counterparts in other states to do the same.

The U.S. Department of Transportation has a project with state police in six states to equip over five hundred police cars with air bags. Six Ohio Highway Patrol cruisers with the device have experienced crashes without serious injuries. Trooper Phillip Long walked out of his heavily damaged vehicle with only a bruised knee and wrist, saying “I’m a believer in them (air bags) now… If I had anything to do with it, every car would have air bags.”

Well two men can have something to do with it, but they won’t. They are Roger Smith, head of General Motors, and President Ronald Reagan who has the legal authority to require such automatic crash protections in new cars. Instead, Reagan revoked such a standard in 1961, was rebuked by unanimous Supreme Court in 1983 and required to reissue the standard in 1984. But this time, he carved out a large loophole — the standard would be revoked if states containing two-thirds of the nation’s population pass mandatory seat belt use lows. The great anti-regulator himself prefers to regulate 150 million motorists instead of 15 automobile manufacturers. And of course so does his adviser on such matters — General Motors.

But seat belts should riot be pitted against air bags. Seat belts are in almost all cars now and they can save lives now. But air bags can save far more lives in the future because they are more effective than shoulder belts at higher speed crashes, protect motorists better from head injuries and flying glass, and work just about all the time, unlike belts which have to put on by the motorist.

Allen Breed, president of Breed Corporation, has developed a new, simpler, mechanical air bag that will retail for under $100. The Department of Transportation, GM and other auto companies have tested this invention and give it high points. Since car owners can save around $50 a year in reduced insurance premiums if their car had an air bag, the economies as well as the saving of human life hove become compelling.

Breed declares confidently: “One day air bags will become as common as safety glass on the windshield.” Only, that is if you the motorist make your demands clear to auto dealers, auto makers and Ronald Reagan.