Sunday, June 24, 2007

Noteworthy anniversary in auto safety today

According to the New York Times, " 'Today [June 24, 1983] was a very bad day for deregulators,' one lawyer insisted after the Supreme Court rejected the Reagan Administration's attempt to dump a 'passive' safety restraint rule for autos. It would be more accurate to say it was a bad day for regulators who ignore the will of Congress. The Court's stunning, unanimous ruling should signal a fresh start in the long-delayed effort to reduce traffic deaths with modern 'airbag' technology."

As we remember, Ronald Reagan was famous for his support of deregulation of big business and his distaste for what he called big government. Early in his administration, the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) repealed a planned regulation to require automakers to install "passive" restraints (airbags or so-called "automatic" seat belts). This rule was to phase in with the 1982 model year and be completed by the 1984 model year.

Insurance companies, led by State Farm and the National Association of Independent Insurers, sued the government, and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. On this date in 1983, the court ruled 9-0 that the Reagan administration's repeal was "arbitrary and capricious" and that the auto industry had waged "the regulatory equivalent of war" on the airbag, a war the industry had "lost -- the inflatable restraint was proven sufficiently cost effective."

This decision paved the way for the Department of Transportation, led by Elizabeth Dole, to propose an ingenious new rule that had the salutary effect of prompting states to pass mandatory seat belt usage laws AND requiring the automakers to begin installing airbags or automatic seat belts in cars starting with the 1987 model year.

As we know, airbags won out ultimately over the automatic belts (some of which were poorly designed), and all cars and light trucks are now required to have driver and passenger frontal airbags. Seat belt use in the US has risen dramatically in the past couple of decades from something like a dismal 12% for front seat occupants in 1982 to over 80% today (and 90% in a few states).

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