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Puncturing the air-bag rule.

Puncturing the Air-Bag Rule

In his best-selling autobiography, Iacocca, the president of the Chrysler Corporation characterizes himself as a "safety nut.' Lee Iacocca argues strongly for the use of seat belts and claims that during his years as an executive of the Ford Motor Company he was an innovator in the field of automobile safety. There is no hint in the book that he played a key role in sabotaging the air bag when it came closest to reaching the public, in the early 1970s, and that behind the scenes, he was willing to sacrifice safety for profits.

We know this thanks to Richard M. Nixon's passing for tape-recording discussions in the Oval Office. A transcript of a secret meeting on April 27, 1971, between Nixon, Henry Ford 2d and Iacocca, who was then president of Ford, surfaced in a 1982 lawsuit against the auto company. It proves that Ford and Iacocca aggressively attempted to persuade the President to scuttle, or at least delay, the safety regulations besetting the auto industry. Iacocca did almost all the talking for the Ford side. The meeting, referred to briefly in a recent 60 Minutes segment on air bags, is not mentioned at all in Iacocca.

Rumors about the meeting had circulated in Washington for years, but no one could confirm them. A house commerce subcommittee investigating delays in requiring passive restraints tried to obtain a transcript of the White House tapes in 1975 and again in 1980, but got nowhere. Attorneys for the subcommittee suspected that the conference, if it had occurred, constituted an effort to exert "improper, backdoor' influence on national policy. "We were checking into this,' former Representative Robert Eckhardt, who chaired the subcommittee in 1980, told the Los Angeles Times recently, "because we were-fighting what was apparently a rather underhanded way of avoiding the law.'

What Iacocca and Ford wanted, the transcript shows, was for Nixon to quash a then-pending Federal regulation that would have required air bags on every new car, starting with the 1972 model year. (Iacocca had approached Secretary of Transportation John A. Volpe on the matter and had been rebuffed.) At the outset of the meeting, Nixon assured his guests, "You can talk to me in complete confidence. . . . And John [Ehrlichman, Nixon's chief adviser for domestic affairs, who was also present] is a lawyer who says nothing.' Iacocca made it clear that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's proposed safety regulations, which called for the improvement of seat belts and auto bumpers as well as the introduction of air bags, would force Ford to increase its prices, which, in turn, would make its cars less competitive with Japanese models and hurt its sales. "We are in a downhill slide, the likes of which we have never seen in our business,' Iacocca told Nixon. "And the Japs are in the wings ready to eat us up alive. So I'm in a position to be saying [to the Department of Transportation], "Would you guys cool it a little bit? You're gonna break us.'' He also said, "Safety has really killed all of our business.'

Iacocca found a sympathetic listener in Richard Nixon. "We can't have a completely safe society or safe highways or safe cars and pollution-free and so forth,' Nixon replied. "The safety thing is the kick 'cause [Ralph] Nader's running around squealing about this and that and the other thing.' Nixon noted that the "environmentalists' and "consumerism people' were interested only in "destroying the system.'

Iacocca, the self-avowed safety nut, complaining at one point that those who favored air bags believed that "the citizens of the U.S. must be protected from their own idiocy.' Referring to those who say that the public wants safer cars, Iacocca told Nixon: "What do you mean they want safety? We get letters. We get about thousands on customer service. . . . We don't get anything on safety.' Iacocca ridiculed the shoulder harness (now required on all new cars) as a "waste of money.' He referred to the campaign to improve the strength of car bumpers (which he admitted were "fragile') as "this bumper craze.'

Although his company had been calling for the adoption of a rule requiring an ignition interlock system (which would prevent a car from starting until the driver's seat belt was fastened) rather than the air bag, Ford told Nixon customers would probably get around that rule by taking their cars to garages and having the device disconnected.

By the end of the thirty-five-minute meeting, Iacocca and Ford were giving Nixon and Ehrlichman tips on how to approach the Transportation Department about withdrawing the air bag rule and how the department could explain such a move to the public. "They could say, uh,' Iacocca said, ""because of further evidence,' or "we want continuing discussions.' They could suspend it.' Nixon was enthusiastic and promised to look into the whole matter.

"John is your contact here,' Nixon instructed. Then, he denounced consumerists, who supposedly opposed all industrialization, with a vintage Nixonism: "[They think] the great life is to have it like when the Indians were here. You know how the Indians lived? Dirty, filthy, horrible.' After offering thanks and appreciation, Ford and Iacocca left the Oval Office, accompanied by Ehrlichman.

The air bag rule was subsequently canceled by the Transportation Department, and it remains in limbo to this day. A 1976 report by the commerce subcommittee concluded that Ehrlichman, in a confidential memorandum, had ordered the department to kill the rule.

The tape of the April 27 discussion surfaced only after Henry Ford 2d's biographer, Victor Lasky, revealed in 1981 that the meeting had taken place. In 1982, attorneys for the parents of an Atlanta teen-ager who had died in the fiery wreck of a Ford Mustang, after it was hit from behind and its gas tank burst into flames, tried to obtain the tape from the National Archives in order to demonstrate that the auto company had opposed tighter safety standards in the early 1970s. They were told that the tape could not be released without Nixon's permission and that he would not give it. The former President was then subpoenaed, and he offered to let the attorneys transcribe the tape in lieu of a deposition. They accepted the offer, and in November 1982 the transcript was read aloud in an Atlanta courtroom. The plaintiffs also introduced into evidence a confidential Ford Motor Company in-house memorandum, circulated the day before the executives conferred with Nixon, which stated that a new gas tank safety feature under development would not be placed on cars until it was legally required, in 1976. (The Atlanta girl died in a 1975 Mustang.) The feature, called a flak suit, was a thick wall of resilient plastic that would coat the fuel tank. A jury awarded the girl's parents $9.3 million in 1982, and the Nixon tape was forgotten.

In the past decade only a handful of lives were lost due to safety shortcomings of automobiles introduced under Iacocca; however, tens of thousands of lives have been lost in the past decade that might have been saved had the 1973 air bag rule gone into effect. Michael Lemov, a Washington attorney who was chief counsel to the commerce subcommittee at the time of the 1975 investigation, has said that there is "no question' that the transcript of the White House meeting establishes that the Ford officials improperly influenced the air bag regulation process. "That conference, and what apparently flowed from it,' says Ben Kelley, former senior vice president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, "have made a very important contribution to the fact that, still today, Americans cannot buy air bag protection at any cost, in any car.'
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Title Annotation:how Lee Iacocca help sabotage air bag legislation
Author:Mitchell, Greg
Publication:The Nation
Date:Feb 16, 1985
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