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It was an altogether exceptional dinner gathering. The occasion was to honor the eleven major air bag inventors who were personally recognized, one by one, by survivors of vehicle collisions saved by the air bag.

Official Washington is not used to such events. Dinners are to celebrate funding of campaigns and mutual backscratching between sets of political, corporate and media power brokers. This dinner was for tears of happiness, for the victory of life over death, for the earnest dedication of inventors isolated by their society, for the clean eloquence of authenticity in the expressions by the survivors about what it felt like to be suddenly saved from serious injury or loss of life.

The creativity got started in the nineteen fifties with the lone inventors, John Hetrick (1953) and Harry Bertrand (1958) receiving patents. Later auto supply companies such as Eaton and auto companies, such as Volvo and Ford, produced inventors who refined the relatively simple but reliable air bag mechanism and its sensor.

Harry Bertrand, now in his eighties, received his award and spoke these telling words: “The difference between engineers and inventors is that an inventor is a damn fool who’s not educated, who doesn’t understand the figures that say it can’t be done and tries to do it anyway. Engineers are educated. They’ve got figures that can prove it absolutely positively cannot be done — theoretically. So it takes them from 30 to 50 years to catch up with the original inventors.”

He might have added that these engineers are employed by companies whose management operates too often by the Not Invented Here Syndrome followed by the stubbornness against outside demands to install such devices.

There are now some 5 million air bag equipped automobiles (mostly driver side) on the U.S. highways. If General Motors heeded their President, Ed Cole, who promised the federal Department of Transportation in 1970 that all GM cars, vans and light trucks would have air bags for the full front seat by the 1975 model year, just about all passenger vehicles would have air bags today. Over 125,000 Americans would have been saved, along with millions of injuries prevented or reduced in severity.

But Cole retired in 1974. His successors reversed his policy and became anti-air bag.

Such delays before 1970 as well were what prompted inventor Bertrand to say: “This is the reason we are having these testimonies tonight instead of 30 years ago.”

For Deborah Hanrahan driving her new Ford Mustang into a tractor-trailer, the air bag that restrained her from smashing into hard steel, plastic and glass saved two lives. She later learned she was pregnant. With her at the podium was 7 month old T.J. in the arms of his father, Thomas. She thanked the inventors for letting her “mother and Thomas’ mother have a grandson.”

The auto executives from Japan to the U.S. to Europe were visibly moved. So were the insurance company executives, some of whom had persuaded their companies to equip their fleets with air bags. Long time adversaries quietly regretted past delays, but savored the stories each survivor told of the joy and relief that followed the reliable air bag’s instantaneous inflation to cushion them.

Watching from a table near the podium was Jack Rabinow, former chief engineer for the U.S. Bureau of Standards and, with his 200 plus patents, a great champion of inventors. Also observing the scene near him was Gerald Carmen, who as head of the General Services Administration let out bids in the early Eighties to purchase 5500 air bag equipped cars for use by federal government employees. This brought Ford Motor Co. back into the air bag business and the result will be

manufacturer air bags for almost all their vehicles by the mid Nineties.

Nearly one in five Americans under the age of 40 will be saved by an air bag from injury or worse. it is way overdue for us to recognize these unknown inventors of health and safety devices and systems. Why some youngsters may want to grow up being like them instead of looking at Mutant Ninja Turtles as role models.

(For more information as to how a video of this dinner may be obtained, write to Judith Stone, Advocates for Highway and Auto Safety, 777 N. Capitol Street, NE, Suite 400, Washington, DC 20002.)