Lee Iacocca had this to say about air bags in his 1984 bestselling autobiography: “There are those who believe that air bags are the answer. I disagree. I’ve been speaking out against them since they were first developed almost twenty years ago.” Now look at this report from the February 10th Wall Street Journal: “Chrysler Corp. said it will make driver-side airbags standard on six models beginning this spring, thus becoming the first of the Big Three auto makers to make the devices standard on some models.”
In 1984 Lee Iacocca was Chrysler’s chief executive; today he remains that auto maker’s boss. What happened?
First, loquacious Lee is not talking. The company’s announcement did not come in his words. So he as not vet eaten crow nor apologized to the millions of people who read the three pages in his book spouting forth egregiously negative nonsense about air bags and were mislead about this great lifesaving device.
Second, competition is what turned Chrysler around on air bags. And competition started with a little-publicized decision by Gerald Carmen, head of the federal government’s General Services Administration (GSA)) in 1982. In a meeting, I managed to persuade Carmen that it would he good policy to buy some air bag-equipped cars to see if the government fleet of cars could be made safer. Only Ford Motor Co. bid and subsequently delivered 5000 Tempos with driver-side air bags.
Ford then leaped ahead of the pack with air bag options on the Tempo and Topaz models. Travelers, Allstate, State Farm and USAA bought Tempos to further stimulate the market for air bags and, of course, to protect their employees in any crashes.
Today, nine of the seventeen top automobile manufacturers are offering the air bag as an option on at least one of their models. Mercedes has the driver-side air bag as standard and next year the Ford Lincoln will have standard air bags for the entire front seat.
Suddenly, Chrysler has hurtled over the competition with the announcement on models below the luxury class. It won’t be long before other companies are forced to follow. So what started as a procurement lever from GSA has now entrenched itself behind a competitive spiral pushing more air bags to save more lives, prevent more injuries and reduce the rise of insurance premiums.
A four year old New York state law will start being felt as an added impetus. It requires auto insurance companies to reduce their premium (by at least $50 per year) for air bag-equipped vehicles. Since standard mass production air bags should cost less then $300 for the full front seat, a return of $50 or more a year is quite attractive.
The air bag resurgence, nineteen years after the Department of Transportation first proposed that safety system, is all the more remarkable in the face of persistent Reaganite opposition to any appropriate regulation for automatic crash protection.
In 1981 the Reagan regime, reflecting their chief’s anti-air bag statements during his campaign, revoked Carter’s automatic
restraint standard that was scheduled to go into effect. The Supreme Court ruled unanimously in 1983 that the Reagan revocation was unlawful. Then, in 1984 Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole thought she found a way around the Supreme Court’s directive to reissue the standard. She pitted state mandatory seat belt laws against air bags.
Dole did this by issuing a standard that stipulated a revocation of the federal automatic restraint requirement (including air bags) if states containing two-thirds of the nation’s population passed a certain form of mandatory seat belt law.
Well, enough legislatures, led by California, believed that air bags were superior in faster collisions and worked without having to urge drivers to do anything. Consequently, they passed seat belt laws which did not meet Dole’s requirements for revocation of the phased federal standard for air bags of automatic belts. Dole’s strategy collapsed.
Presently, nearly 300,000 vehicles, most of them Mercedes, have driver-side air bags in the United States. A few of them are GM cars from the mid-Seventies with full front seat air bags. This safety device has worked beautifully only when it is needed.
Soon, millions of cars will have air bags and you will be watching televised reports on the evening news about collisions that were stopped from taking American lives by this inflatable cushion. You may even be seeing Lee Iacocca coning on to your screen selling air bags on Chryslers. He’ll be fast talking as usual; but this time he’ll be making sense for a change.