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“Safety Should be Our First Priority. The Auto Industry Has Dragged Its Feet Long Enough.”

“In the early Eighties, the American car industry made a mockery of ‘Made in America.-

“We believe a car engineered for safety is a car engineered for quality.”

Who wrote the above words Consumer Advocates? Government Safety Regulators? None other than Chrysler Chairman, Lee Iacocca.

In full page newspaper advertisements and television spots, the ubiquitous salesman, Iacocca, is promoting air bags and Chrysler’s Firsts. First to put airbags as standard driver-side equipment on all its domestic cars. Now, the company is first to install the driver-side air bag in minivans.

Between 1970 and 1988 I remember a different Lee Iacocca. For eighteen years he was the leading and most vocal opponent of air bags, devoting almost two pages in his best-selling autobiography to declamations about the dangers of air bags and all the other bad things he could think to say. It was Iacocca who, the Nixon tapes reveal, got Nixon’s attention against air bags during a White House meeting with Henry Ford II. That interchange led to a White House order to Transportation Secretary, John Volpe, to scrap the air bag standard in favor of Ford’s “better idea” — the short-lived interlock seat belt.

In May 1988, Iacocca converted and launched a national ad campaign headlined: “Who Says You can’t Teach an Old Dog New Tricks?” Soon, Chrysler will feature television ads showing two Chrysler cars colliding and their air-bag protected drivers walking away uninjured.

Further, in an unprecedented move, he invited Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, which I helped found, to address his Board of Directors this month.

Company insiders relate that Mr. Iacocca has been deeply touched by letters from air bag survivors or their relatives. The joy and gratitude expressed in these letters have reached the emotions of this tough veteran of the car wars. But then why didn’t Iacocca push for the upgrading of safety standards on vans and light trucks to match the standards long applicable to automobiles? He dragged his feet for years. Why has he cooled in his formerly strong position for fuel economy standards when, during the mid-Eighties, he presented Congress with a withering critique of Ford and General Motors?

The answer is in a phrase — situational ethics. And that phrase is a key to unlocking corporate stubbornness on lots of consumer, worker and environmental issues.

Corporations and their executives are often ethical neuters, when asked to be more progressive and less destructive. The old situational ethics did not penalize or otherwise cost the companies for externalizing their hazardous defects, their phony bumpers, their pollution and their gas guzzling engines. The law and forceful, informed customer opinion change the situation and thereby the ethics.

Consider the arena of workplace safety. For years we would urge companies to treat the safety of workers as either a moral issue or as a pragmatic business decision to save on costs and production. For years, companies spent their power and money opposing OSHA’s very modest attempts to reduce casualties where millions of American labor daily.

Well, here is an item from a recent Wall St. Journal: “Safety Pays, a growing number of companies find. Safety and productivity, once viewed as antagonistic, have become bedfellows. Some companies say better safety practices improve morale, boost output, trim worker-compensation costs and strengthen public relations. ‘Safety fits in nicely with the quality leadership process’ says Eastman Kodak safety director James Mitchell.”

DuPont safety chief, William Mottel “calls safety and efficiency ‘Siamese twins.'”

And so it goes. The blasphemy of yesterday is the commonplace of tomorrow. In the meantime, millions of innocent people are harmed while the public waits for these overpaid top executives to discover the truisms they were rejecting over the years.

As for Lee Iacocca, he is soon to be the subject of a Doonesbury cartoon over his switcheroo on the air bag. But we shouldn’t be too harsh on the Chrysler chief, considering the refusal of GM’s Roger Smith, the Wall St. Journal editorialists and others to ever change their minds on that great life-saving safety device.

Why, perhaps, Mr. Iacocca deserves the first annual corporate redemption award for seeing the light.