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The airtight case for air bags; there is no comparable safety substitute for putting air bags in all cars, says Allstate Insurance Group's chairman and chief executive officer.


The big breakthrough for the public may be imminent. In July 1984, the U.S. Department of Transportation instituted a requirement that such automatic front-seat-occupant restraints as air bags or automatic safety belts be installed in every new passenger car by 1990. This ruling requires a gradual four-year, phased introduction of automatic restraints beginning September 1, 1986, to include 10 percent of 1987 model cars; the percentage would increase each year until 1990.

But in her ruling, Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole also determined that this phase-in of automatic restraints would be rescinded if, by April 1, 1989, states representing two-thirds of the nation's population enacted and enforced mandatory safety-belt-use laws by front-seat occupants. In effect, the ruling forces states to choose between air bags and manual safety belts--in all new cars since 1968.

Thie either-or provision worries insurers, doctors, safety groups, and others. The two concepts of occupant restraints should have been made complementary. Instead, Secretary Dole treated them as if they were mutually exclusive. And the DOT ruling provides no broad, uniform national policy designed to prevent injuries and deaths in all states and for all car purchasers. Rescission of Secretary Dole's automatic-crash-protection rules could occur if as few as 16 of the most populous states adopted mandatory belt-use laws that meet DOT criteria. The remaining states, with 80 million residents, would be left unprotected by any planned, proved program of reducing casualties. Moreover, the DOT does not require even those states that pass such laws to keep them in effect after rescission or to make any specific enforcement efforts.

The insurance industry urges everyone to use safety belts. Allstate and the vast majority of insurers now support passage of mandatory safety-belt-use laws to reduce casualties by increasing belt use. This policy follows 30 years of expensive, but unsuccessful, efforts by industry and safety groups to motivate widespread voluntary usage. But these groups do not want belt laws to prevent installation of complementary air-bag technology in all 1990 model cars.

To obtain effective safety-belt laws now, without denying the public this ultimate protection of air bags, insurers and safety groups strongly recommend that each state considering belt laws include a legislative statement of intent. This statement should make clear that it is not intended that the law's passage contribute in any way to changing the scheduled introduction of automatic restraints.

Despite the past extensive promotion of safety belts, their voluntary use by front-seat occupants averaged only about 12.5 percent in the United States before recent passage of mandatory-use laws by various states. Such laws have increased use in those states by two to three times than before the laws' passage.

But regardless of the degree of increased use that safety-belt laws might achieve, air bags would substantially reduce injuries and deaths even more if installed as standard equipment in full front seats.

The unprecedented amount of road performance proving air bags' worth includes more than 12,000 air-bag-equipped cars produced for several years through 1976. As of August 1984, these 12,000 cars, which had traveled more than a billion miles, had had 281 crashes severe enough to inflate the bags. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, analyzing injury data from these crashes, found that the occupants protected by air bags had substantially less-severe injuries than unrestrained occupants.

More recently, thousands of 1983-86 Mercedes-Benz and Ford Tempo cars equipped with air bags have been driven millions of miles. They have been in dozens of crashes severe enough to cause air-bag inflation. This real-world performance of air bags follows thousands of tests by automakers, insurers, air-bag suppliers, and independent research organizations and makes air bags the most extensively tested and proven auto-safety system in history.

Ford has announced plans to install driver-side air bags as standard equipment on the substantial majority of its automobiles within the next four years--if the Department of Transportation grants more time to produce and install air bags for the passenger side over the following few years. This major commitment is a breakthrough in the availability of air bags to the general public. Assuming DOT is satisfied that reasonable progress is being made on installation of passenger-side air bags and the extension beyond the 1990 full-implementation target is capped at three years or so, we support Ford's request and encourage DOT approval.

If air bags were installed in all cars, consumers would realize substantial annual savings in auto-, health-, and life-insurance premiums. Taxpayers would also benefit significantly from reduced payments at public expense to many victims and survivors, for lifelong care for the disabled, and for other costly services directly related to auto accidents.

For years, many insurance companies have offered discounts on medical-payments coverage and personal-injury-protection benefits to owners of air-bag-equipped cars in applicable states. Dollar savings would increase sharply for policyholders if all cars had air bags.

A number of public-opinion polls on occupant crash protection reflect air bags' widespread public acceptance. For example, a 1983 poll for the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety indicated that 90 percent of car buyers believed automatic crash protection should be required on new cars as standard or optional equipment. Only 4 percent of the respondents said the availability of automatic restraints should be left up to motor-vehicle manufacturers.

However, I'm still reminded by a few skeptical acquaintances that air bags work only in front and front-angular collisions. But I reply, "And coronary-bypass surgery doesn't cure cancer, but it saves a lot of lives. So will air bags. . .and used in combination with safety belts, you'll have the best overall crash protection now available."

If you would like more information about air bags and safety belts, write to Allstate's Advocacy Division, Allstate Plaza A-4, Northbrook, IL 60062.
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Title Annotation:Richard J. Haayen
Author:Haayen, Richard J.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Dec 1, 1986
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