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Congress may steer five big automakers toward air bag by 1983

Congress is revving up to give US car buyers the air bag. A House-Senate conference committee is nearing completion of the bill that would require the five largest automakers to offer air bags as an option on at least one line of cars by 1983.

As presently designed, in a frontal collision the air bag pops out from under the dashboard and inflates in just four-thousandths of a second to protect front-seat occupants.

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The air bag is not effective in side collisions or rollovers.

The bill specifies that manufacturers who produce a combined total of more than 1.6 million cars in the United States and in any other country and who sell a total of more than 200,000 cars in the US are required to equip one line of cars with air bags.

This means that domestic automakers Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation, along with foreign manufacturers Nissan (Datsun), Toyota, and Volkswagen must participate. The two other US automakers, Chrysler Corporation and American Motors, are excluded.

Chrysler has produced only about 773,000 1980 model cars in the US and Canada so far this year. American Motors has produced only about 190,000 1980 model cars in the last 12 months.

"Those car manufacturers [Chrysler and American Motors] are undergoing severe economic distress at the present time," says an aide for Sen. John W. Warner (R) of Virginia, sponsor of the bill. "There's no need for them to incur more costs."

The bill still requires approval of the full House and Senate.

Some sources say approval is expected, but congressmen from Michigan, with the giant automakers behind them, are expected to lead opposition.

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Donald E. Peterson, president of Ford, says the bill is discriminatory "in that only certain producers are forced to offer air bags. . . ."

He adds that Ford would be burdened with "costs and requirements not placed on many of our competitors."

On its own, Ford already has plans to introduce air bags in 1982 as an option on the Lincoln and Continental Mark VI. But the impact of the bill "may change our plans," says Charles Gumushian, Ford's government relations associate, refusing to explain further.

Based on expected costs in 1982, Ford says its air-bag safety system would cost the consumer $825 if 200,000 units were produced. The cost would be $575 each if 800,000 units were produced, Ford says.

Consumer safety advocates, noting that millions more small, crash-vulnerable cars are coming onto American roads, welcome the bill.

Brian O'Neill, vice-president of research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety says that without the bill, air bags are likely to be seen only in the more expensive cars.

"Mercedes has announced that every car it sells in the US will have air bags by 1982, but that doesn't help the typical car buyer," he says. "We want to see air bags on smaller cars where the occupants need more protection in a crash."

Although auto executives argue that consumers won't be interested in air bags because of their high prices, opinion polls consistently show consumers willing to buy them, Mr. O'Neill points out.

In a July New York Times survey, in response to the question, "Would you favor or oppose requiring car manufacturers to equip all new cars with air safety bags?", 45 percent of the licensed drivers questioned said they wanted air bags to be required. Only 32 percent were opposed. And among drivers who were under 35, some 63 percent were in favor and only 21 percent were opposed.

Another proponent of the bill, Don Shaffer, general council for Allstate insurance, says, "Not having air bags on cars is like not having elevators with automatic emergency stops."

Mr. Shaffer, who has owned six "air bag cars" since 1972, survived an "air bag crash" with no injuries. He says:

"Industry research shows that if all cars had air bags, 9,000 to 10,000 lives would be saved annually. Another 2,000 to 3,000 lives would be protected from serious injury."

Since 1974 Allstate has offered a 30 percent discount on air bag cars with no-fault coverages in no-fault states, such as Massachusetts, and on the medical payments coverage in non-no-fault states, such as California.

The Insurance Service Organization, Nationwide Insurance Company, and many other insurance groups also offer discounts on air bag cars.

A July Department of Transportation study showed that an air bag equipped Chevrolet Citation protected car occupants in a 37.5 mile per hour crash into a solid barrier. A Volvo passed the same crash test at 40 m.p.h.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently contacted US and foreign automobile manufacturers to learn about their progress in implementing automatic restraint technology. They found that:

* GM is not expected to re-introduce air bags on fullsize cars until 1983, if then, nor on small or medium size cars in the foreseeable future. Between 1972- 75 GM produced about 12,000 air bag cars.

* Chrysler does not plan to offer air bags on any of its 1981 models.

* American Motors does not have plans to offer automatic restraints ahead of required dates.

* Several foreign automakers, such as BMW and Saab, have indicated plans for the introduction of air bags; but many of the plans are still tentative.

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