September 1986 marked the 20th anniversary of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) but you would scarcely know it by watching the Reaganites virtually ignore its celebration. They did have their reasons, however.
First, they did not want to admit the very substantial life-saving and injury preventing successes of this federal regulatory program over the automobile manufacturers. Over 150,000 lives have been saved and millions of serious injuries prevented as a result of the federal vehicle and highway safety programs.
Second, they did not want more public attention directed to the last five and a half years of their abdication, antagonism and indifference to these federal safety missions. The Reagan regime, to its disgrace, has gone out of its way to revoke safety standards, refuse to issue new ones, refuse to provide buyers with specific information about makes and models, refuse to continue pioneering development work for safer cars, slow the process of recalling dangerous cars and trucks, scuttle its dollar-saving fuel economy program and in other ways kowtow to the giant auto lobby led by General Motors.
Empathy — that freely acquired good — is as rare in this government as a snowball on the Equator. In releasing a report on NHTSA’s 20th anniversary, Joan Claybrook, president of Public Citizen, put the issue in its most central focus: “The greatest benefits of auto safety regulation are not measured by money saved, but by the pain, trauma, death and family disruption prevented. No aggregate number or dollar figure can truly express these preventive benefits to families across America who are spared the heartbreak of losing a loved one in an auto crash.”
Once again, a great opportunity to save more lives and injuries is coming to a critical juncture, in spite of the Reagan government. Manufacturers such as Mercedes, BMW, Porsche and Ford are beginning to offer air bags for sale on some models as options. Mercedes installs driver side air bags as standard equipment. They are more expensive as options than mass produced standard air bags, which could retail for $250 over the full front seat. Nonetheless, by the end of this year, over 100,000 air bag equipped cars will be on the U.S. Highways. The happy stories of instantly saved motorists in a crash are increasing.
Clearly, some new momentum is needed for more widespread air bag deployment. Some government agencies and insurance companies are buying air bag cars for their fleets. But that is not moving quickly enough for a critical mass when the auto manufacturers decide that air bags will be as routine as brakes.
Were several dozen celebrities in American to sign a pledge that they will buy a car from the first manufacturer that places air bags protecting the full front seat as standard engineering in a model production run of at least 200,000 a year, one or more companies may seize on this spectacularly free and visible promotion.
It should not be necessary to turn to such resorts. But when your federal government is in the hands of corporatists who care more about GM than about motorists’ safety and motorists’ pocketbooks, the imaginations must spring. So, let’s hear it from the celebrity world.
(For a copy of the 20th anniversary report on NHTSA, send $1.00 to cover postage to Public Citizen, P. 0. Box 19404, Washington, DC 20036.)