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News about motorists being saved in highway collisions by airbags is increasing in frequency these days. Sometime later this year, there will be in the United States 100,000 cars equipped with airbags — mostly driver-side only, and mostly recent Mercedes models. The rest include twelve-year-old GM cars — with full front seat airbags — a few Volvos and Fords of similar vintage, some new police cars, and about 9,000 Ford Tempo and Topaz models.
When will this life-saving technology — first deployed in a 1972 production model car — be available on all cars as standard equipment selling for about $250 retail or less?

To answer this question is to have to comment on the piecemeal pro-airbag strategies now under way because the Reagan government has abdicated its statutory duty to make sure this great American invention protects Americans in crashes. Reagan, it will be remembered, was rapped by a unanimous Supreme Court in 1983 for unlawfully revoking the automatic crash protection standard in 1981, just before it was to take effect.

Strategy number one is procurement of airbag-equipped vehicles by government and corporate fleets. The General Services Administration — the federal government’s buyer–purchased 5,000 Ford Tempos with airbags two years ago. New York State bought a few dozen such cars recently, and other states are considering the same. The Traveler’s Insurance Company is converting its entire fleet into driver-side airbag Tempos, having already obtained almost two thousand models. Allstate, State Farm, and United Services Automobile Association have each purchased a few hundred Tempos for their employees. Still to be heard from are the giant life insurance companies and the telephone companies. In addition, there are nearly one thousand state police cars with airbags installed.

Strategy number two is competition. Mercedes raced ahead of General Motors’ Cadillac with standard airbag installation beginning late last year. The defect-plagued Cadillac is feeling the technological lag. Although GM was the airbag leader in the early seventies under its president, Edward Cole, his successors reversed company policy and became anti-airbag. Now, however, GM boss Roger Smith has been forced to announce that Cadillacs will have optional airbags starting in the fall of 1987.

At the mass market level, it was expected that Honda would respond to Ford’s optional airbag move. Perhaps with the release of U.S. government crash tests this month disclosing that one of Honda’s models did very poorly, the Japanese company will take its airbag plans off the shelf. If so, watch the dominoes effect work its way through other car companies.

The problem with Ford is with its dealers. We just completed a survey of 45 Ford dealers in 15 states. When asked about available options, none of the dealers mentioned airbags. When asked specifically about safety options, none mentioned airbags. When asked directly about airbag availability, only thirteen noted the airbag, and six out of those thirteen didn’t even have the correct price.

It is clear that if Ford wants to sell airbags as options in order to set the stage for standard equipment airbags, it will have to get its dealers to promote them. Consumers can help by asking about airbags when they telephone or visit their dealers. Insurance companies can help by publicizing both airbags and the premium discount they give annually to owners of airbag-equipped cars.

Strategy number three is expanded consumer advocacy toward government safety regulators, auto companies and dealers, and insurance firms. More legislative hearings and media reporting are needed to focus on these parties and also on survivors of crashes who were saved by airbags. Indirectly, the attention given to Lee Iacocca as a possible presidential candidate can focus attention on his role back in 1973 in persuading President Nixon to reverse the Department of Transportation’s airbag course.

It is tragic that this technological vaccine has been blocked by a few callous executives and their government allies from saving so many thousands of lives and millions of injuries in the past thirteen years. U.S. leadership here would have resulted in similar airbag installations in many other countries.

There are many human beings to be protected in the future. A rousing airbag campaign is needed this fall — the twentieth and very sleepy anniversary of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration.