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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Airbags – Kathleen Sullivan

Kathleen Sullivan called today and her voice did not have the normal timbre that millions of television viewers are accustomed to when they watch the CBS morning news. She was speaking from a hospital in Idaho where her mother and stepfather were resting comfortably from injuries received when their car went into a ravine.

“I’ve been thinking about you since last Thursday,” she said, “and I’m calling to say thank you.” She then related how her stepfather had fallen asleep at the wheel of his Lincoln while driving through some steep Idaho hills on the way east. The car pitched over a steep edge and flipped over both sideways and in a frontal somersault, until its crushed remains came to rest. Police arriving at the scene were ready to pick up the bodies. They were astonished to see two very shaken people, with some gashes and bruises, but who were very much alive. So were the physicians when they saw the pictures of the wreck.

What made the difference is that Lincoln is equipped with what every motor vehicle should have been equipped with for the past 15 years — full front seat air bags! They inflated instantaneously and, by all accounts, saved the lives of Kathleen’s parents. Knowing of my sometimes lonely crusade for air bag installation during the past twenty years, she graciously called to let me know that persistence can produce wonderful, life-preserving results.

There will be more such calls in the coming months and years from parents to children and from children to parents and from friends to friends. The message will be pretty much the same: ‘she was in a terrible crash be she’s alive! A drunk hit them but they walked away from a heap of metal with only scratches!’

Finally, the air bag is facing a green light. Nearly one million cars on the road have driver-side air bags. Most of them are Mercedes models and Chrysler models. GM which sold, in the mid-Seventies, the most air bags — 10,000 cars with entire front seat designs — is way behind. And Ford Motor Co., which broke the subsequent GM-led oppositions to air bags in 1985 by selling 5,000 air bag-equipped Tempos to the federal government, has sold about 40,000 such cars in the past four years.

This is only the beginning of a building momentum. The coming 1990 model year will witness the installation of driver-side air bags in nearly 4 million cars — one million each by Chrysler and Ford, half a million by laggard giant GM, and the rest from foreign manufacturers. A Ford representative assures me that passenger-side air bags will be corning one or two years later.

What accounts for the delay in passenger-side air bags? Without that protection, Kathleen Sullivan’s mother would have been fatally injured. The first cars with air bags in the Seventies had passenger air bags and their crash experience has been exemplary. The auto companies’ excuse is that more development work is needed to deal with the ‘out of position’ child or adult passenger. But the Department of Transportation declared that problem solved in the late Seventies after extensive consultations and examination of auto company data.

The real reason is money. They can charge more for air bags in two installments. And they can meet the federal standard, which they virtually wrote, by putting in passive seat belts for front seat passengers.

Well, the car owner cares for passengers. The faster whole front seat air bags go into cars in mass production, the cheaper they will be. And the more auto insurance companies, beyond the twelve firms already on board, will offer greater premium dollar discounts for air bag-equipped cars.

Once in mass production, air bags will prove to millions of motorists how they save them money as well as lives. The delay in air bag installation is a direct result of the elections of Richard Nixon, who put the first hold on the proposed federal air bag standards after listening to Lee Iacocca and Henry Ford II at the White House, and Ronald Reagan, who viewed air bags as interferences with the freedom to go through the windshield and cancelled the standard. Only a unanimous U.S. Supreme Court ruling in 1983, that Reagan acted unlawfully, put the air bag back on a slow moving track.

If GM President, Ed Cole’s assurance to the government in 1970 that GM would install entire front seat air bags on all GM cars, vans and light trucks by the 1975 model years was not reversed after his retirement by his successors, the entire industry would have converted.

About 150,000 lives and many more injuries would have been saved in North America to date. In the memory of those so sacrificed by corporate callousness, the engineers and other workers in the auto plants should brook no more delays.