Detroit may not be warmly embracing the air bag, but at least it has stopped trying to stick pins in the controversial safety device. Next month, two decades after US carmakers began a pitched battle against air bags, the first American-built cars with a driver's-side bag as standard equipment will appear in dealer showrooms.
By the fall of 1989, every car sold in the United States must have some kind of passive restraint system, either seat belts that automatically enfold passengers or air bags that pop open to absorb the impact of a crash.
By the early 1990s, according to industry estimates, air bags will be in millions of American cars.
Why has it taken 20 years? ``Largely because the air-bag rule had become a symbol to [automakers] of intrusive federal regulation,'' says lawyer James Fitzpatrick. Other auto industry observers contacted offered similar assessments.
General Motors offered air bags as an expensive option on some cars in the 1970s, but few were sold. A Wall Street Journal expos'e later asserted that GM and its dealers actively discouraged sales.
In a 1983 US Supreme Court case, lawyer Fitzpatrick argued successfully on behalf of State Farm Insurance against the revocation of the passive restraint standard for automobiles. The 9-to-0 decision characterized auto industry resistance to air bags as ``the regulatory equivalent of war.''
More than a decade earlier, top Ford Motor Company executives went so far as to arrange a meeting with President Nixon to plead against a federal regulation that would have required air bags in all cars, starting with 1973 models. The meeting had the desired effect: Mr. Nixon ordered the regulation quashed. Eleven years after the 1971 meeting, a transcript from secret Oval Office tapes disclosed the conversation.
Tens of millions of dollars have been spent by the auto industry to promote mandatory seat-belt usage laws. In 1984 Elizabeth Dole, then secretary of the transportation, announced that if two-thirds of the nation's population were covered by state laws mandating seat-belt use by 1989, the federal regulation on passive restraints would be dropped.
Although some 30 state laws have been passed, a Department of Transportation spokesman says that only a handful meet DOT guidelines for rescinding the passive restraint standard.