For most of this century, Americans have enjoyed a love affair with the automobile. In recent years, however, that love affair has come upon hard times - at least as far as the federal government's interest in autos is concerned.
It may come as a surprise, but passenger cars are the most regulated product in the United States. Federal rules govern not only the design but the production and operation of motor vehicles. Government is involved in determining standards for such basic items as bumpers, headlamps, headrests, seat belts, door latches, brakes, tires, windshields, the type of gasoline to be used, fuel economy, and maximum speed.
The complex decision by the Department of Transportation (DOT) in July requiring ''passive'' restraints in cars is the most recent government action to control the safety of autos. The ruling allows four alternatives. Beginning with 1987 models, autos must have either air bags or automatic seat belts. Another possibility is the use of safer, ''friendly'' interiors if automakers can demonstrate that they will provide as much passenger protection as air bags or automatic belts.
The regulation allows for gradual installation of these passive restraints in new autos through 1990, at which time 100 percent of all new fleets must have them. None of the requirements would come into force, however, if states representing two-thirds of the population passed laws requiring people to wear seat belts.
The auto companies maintain that compulsory seat belt use would be far more effective, on grounds it would immediately cover virtually all cars on the road. In contrast, it would take about 15 years to achieve the same coverage with passive restraints, which are limited to new cars. Also, air bags are estimated by the automakers to cost at least $550 more per car than current equipment and, at low production volumes, more than $1,000.
The government's air-bag ruling is a good example of the approach taken by Congress to regulate auto safety. Reluctant to interfere directly with individual behavior, the government concentrates on the things people use, rather than on the way they use them. Since the great majority of auto passengers do not use their seat belts, government steps in to ''protect'' people by mandating auto design and equipment. This approach contrasts sharply with the softness with which drunken-driving laws are enforced nationwide.
Also, little if any attention is paid to the basic causes of highway injuries and fatalities or to alternative ways of dealing with the problem. Consider the following facts and figures: An Indiana University study found that human factors (namely driver errors) caused more than two-thirds of auto accidents. Only 4 percent of accidents were caused by factors relating to the vehicle itself, and most of these involved defective brakes and bald or underinflated tires.
Moreover, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that more than 40 percent of the drivers involved in fatal crashes can be considered legally intoxicated. Adding expensive safety devices will not solve the problem of drunken drivers. A more cost-effective alternative than regulating safety features would be vigorous legal prosecution of drivers (or pedestrians) who are intoxicated.
But the government continues to concentrate on automotive equipment rather than the people who use autos. The impetus behind the passive-restraint rule is the low usage rate of safety belts already in cars; a DOT study shows that only 14 percent of drivers use them. So the regulators have chosen to work around driver preferences and to force automakers to make up for what people will not do.
To make matters worse, auto safety regulations often conflict with other regulatory objectives imposed on autos. Car manufacturers must also comply with mandatory fuel efficiency standards. Reducing the weight of autos is a basic, sensible response by automakers to this regulation. But when two cars of different size and weight collide, the heavier one has the safety advantage.
Automakers can find themselves caught between a rock and a hard place in building safe yet fuel-efficient cars. But that is not all. They must comply with another regulatory requirement: reducing pollution from auto emissions. Little wonder, then, that the chief executive of one of the Big Three auto companies once remarked, ''Our strategy in the US is simple. It's dictated by government regulation.''
Surely safe cars that conserve fuel and emit less pollution are highly desirable. But achieving these goals simultaneously is no simple matter. Throwing an air bag at the auto safety problem does nothing to make the person behind the wheel a safer driver. Moreover, the resultant heavier cars tend to use more fuel and create more pollution. Congress should reconsider the whole array of regulations directed at the automobile, rather than having different federal agencies pursue narrow regulatory goals, oblivious of their costly interactions.
The host of auto safety standards should be reexamined in the light of fuel efficiency mandates. Pollution taxes - rather than existing standards - would give economic incentive for automakers to innovate in reducing auto emissions. The fuel efficiency standards, Congress should recognize, have been rendered obsolete by the pressures of the marketplace.
If the status quo in auto regulation is maintained, the consumer will find that the current approach to adherence to worthy goals of auto safety, high fuel efficiency, and pollution control may indeed be a disaster for the automobile owner.