May 5, 2000
White House Caves in to Auto Industry on Air Bag Standard
Statement of Joan Claybrook, Public Citizen President
The White House today has completely caved in to the auto industry by issuing a weak 25 mph standard for air bags. It put politics over safety in overruling the DOT s decision for a 30 mph standard after a phase-in period. The auto industry waged a campaign of fear and subterfuge, suggesting a 30 mph test was dangerous. I can only surmise that the White House succumbed to the industry s false claims because it didn t want to risk the political fallout if there were more air bag deaths. This is engineering malpractice. We need a 30 mph standard because people are more likely to be killed or seriously injured in higher-speed crashes, and this is where air bags have saved the most lives. But the auto companies cynically lobbied for a weak air bag standard to avoid redesigning SUVs and light trucks that do not comply with the 30 mph test.
By issuing a weak air bag rule, the government today signed death warrants for thousands of people. According to the Department of Transportation s own estimates, 200 to 400 more people will die each year because vehicles will have air bags that meet only a 25 mph crash test, rather than a much safer 30 mph standard. That s the equivalent of two plane crashes annually.
This decision rewards the industry that refused to install available air bag safety systems in the 1990s but instead sold cut-rate, shoddy air bags that have killed 158 innocent Americans. The industry would have you believe the 30 mph crash test would lead to more deaths and injuries. But if air bags are properly designed, air bag-induced deaths would be rare. Automakers for years have had the technology to install air bags that protect occupants in both low and high-speed crashes.
The real issue here is that many of the industry s highly profitable SUVs won t meet a 30 mph standard unless the front structure is redesigned to absorb energy in a crash as cars do.
The 25 mph test will not guarantee safety. Ask yourself this: Why do we need air bags in the first place? The answer is, we need them to protect vehicle occupants in higher-speed crashes, the crashes that are most likely to injure or kill people. The government does not need to sacrifice saving people in higher-speed crashes in order to require much safer air bags in lower-speed crashes. The new standard addresses lower-speed crash safety but fails the grade for higher-speed crash safety.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater often says that safety is the DOT s “North Star.” After today s announcement, safety has become the DOT s falling star.