MY ROOMMATES ALARM CLOCK invariably begins chuping and buzzing at the worst possible time of the morning--about 45 precious minutes before I had planned to awake. To make matters worse, my roommate also likes to start the day with a burst of WEEI news radio. I have come to hate those monotonous traffic reports and the incessant simulated clacking of typewriters in the background. Tuesday morning, though the static aired an advertisement so intriguing that I cut through my early morning fog long enough to listen.
"There are many good reasons for wearing seat belts, "began a soleman-sounding announcer. "At General Motors, we think the best reason is love." The commercial went on to extol the life-saving benefits of buckling up before driving and concluded by reminding us of GM's long-standing commitment to auto safety. But in light of their struggle in recent years to prevent the requirement for automatic seat restraints. General Motors and the other auto makers have in fact established themselves as the nation's staunchest enemies of highway safety. By encouraging motorists to wear seat belts. GM, instead of continuing a tradition of concern for consumer welfare, may really have been trying to ease a guilty conscience Industry opposition to a safety device that would prevent as many as 16,000 traffic deaths each year would certainly provide ample cause for such feelings of guilt.
The device is the airbag, a hidden cushion that inflates upon impact to dampen the shock of an automobile collision. Unlike seat belts, airbags require no active effort by riders, and cause no inconvenience. Because airbags work automatically, they provide constant protection: seat belts, by comparison, protect only those ten percent of all riders who bother to strap themselves in. The airbag has proven its effectiveness in millions of miles of road tests, and even a foe of government regulation like Yale economist William Nordhaus estimates that an airbag law would save, in addition to thousands of invaluable lives. $30 billion a year to the economy in insurance, medical, and lost work time costs.
The automakers' chief objection to airbags is that they cost too much, adding $500 to $800 to the price of a new car. But former Transportation Secretary William T. Coleman, Jr., an airbag opponent, disclosed in 1977 that industry cost estimates--because of accounting manipulation and outright falsification--were vastly inflated. According to a 1981 New York Times story. confidential industry documents revealed that airbags would cost only $100 to $300 per car. But the automakers see even this expense as prohibitive and have used their economic and political clout or lobby successfully against air bag standards since Congress first proposed one in 1969.
The U.S. Supreme Court last week announced it will decide if the automakers must obey a more general 1978 "passive restraint" law next spring. Even if upheld, though, that law would permit automakers to meet the safety standard with either airbags or "passive seat belts," which envelop the rider automatically when he shuts his car door. Given the choice, the manufacturers have expressed their intent to provide the less costly belts, which are easily tangled, difficult to adjust, uncomfortable, and thus likely to be disconnected by car owners. Passive belts alone will not save many more lives than existing seat belts.
So even if the Court does rule in favor of enforcing the restraint rule, auto industry lobbying during creation of the law four years ago gutted it of any real guarantee of safety. In the process of deflating hopes for airbags, the auto industry decisionmakers have, in effect, taken a stand in favor of death for perhaps 16,000 Americans and serious injury for many thousands more. Despite the extra revenue that policy reaps. I don't envy those executives who must face their grim responsibility each morning. I'd rather wake up to news radio.