Opposition to Air Bags Comes Back to Haunt GM Exec

General Motors boss, Roger Smith, finally has had to eat crow on the air bag issue. It must have been a wrenching experience for the stubborn auto executive to open the doors to his engineers who have been straining at the bit to save lives on the highway but could not get a “go” signal from the executive suite.

Smith’s announcement was made at the American Medical Association’s National Leadership Conference in Chicago and it was very general. General Motors, he said, will offer airbags as a driver’s-side option on some unidentified 1988 models.

About the time his company was making its decision, Roger Smith was writing a personal letter to a friend declaring for the umpteenth time that air bags were not necessary nor were they technologically free of problems. This assertion comes from a man whose company engineers placed airbags on about 10,000 GM cars in the mid Seventies and, during highway crashes, these bags have worked with excellent life-saving effectiveness — sometimes as long as 12 years after the car was purchased.

But Roger Smith’s obstinate odyssey against air bags has had little to do with engineering and everything to do with politics. Since Washington first proposed air bags, as one way to meet a safety standard under the auto safety law, Smith believed that consenting to air bags was knuckling under to the Feds and compromising GM’s unyielding opposition to any federal regulation over the auto industry.

What then changed Roger’s mind? Two words “Mercedes and Ford.” The fellows at the defect-plagued Cadillac Division have been chaffing for months because their perceived competitor — Mercedes — offered optional air bags for over a year and later made driver’s side air bags standard equipment in November 1985. Then Ford came along, having sold 5,000 air bag-equipped Tempos to the US Government, and declared that starting in March 1986, air bags for drivers would be available as options for Tempo and Topaz cars.

GM’s current television advertisements exude multi-color images of advanced research, gee whiz technology and extraterrestrial visions. Clearly the lumbering auto giant could not countenance being charged with an image lag behind Ford and Mercedes. That concern stands way ahead of the life-saving purpose. For how else can one explain GM’s step backwards from the mid Seventies, when it installed optional air bags for the full front seat, to the 1988 model year when its air bags will be offered only to protect the driver. The company’s procedure clearly is just to keep up with the competitors, although somewhat belatedly.

Smith did not indicate what price was going to be charged, but the best guess is that it will be very expensive. In this area, GM wants to be able to say that people don’t want air bags. People don’t want many things at extortionate prices. The sooner the government shows it means business about mandatory crash protection technology the sooner the price for full front seat air bags will decline to no more than the $250 range (estimated by the air bag manufacturers) and the sooner will motorists begin to save at least $50 a year on their auto insurance premiums.

The prospect of the government acting in this way may have to await the post-Reagan period. But Terrence C. Golden, the administrator of the General Services Administration — which buys the cars for government personnel — has announced a second purchase of 2000 air bag-equipped vehicles. Traveler’s Insurance Company has about 1500 such cars and plans to convert its entire national car fleet to air bags within a year. Traveler’s officials assert that the program has more than paid for itself in prevented injuries already.

There are indications that Chrysler is about to make an announcement about its air bag plans. Already BMW, Porsche and Volvo plan to offer air bags on some of their models. No Japanese company has yet made an air bag decision but the first one that does will be able to say “Après moi — le deluge.” The life-saving dominoes effect will be underway.

So take it easy Roger, it’s no crime for a GM leader to be charged with doing something that will save lives. Pretty unusual, yes, but not a felony. Try an air bag in your chauffeured limousine. Since you sit in the back seat, you’ll also break new ground in air bag installation location.

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