Federal automobile safety standards saved some 37,000 lives between 1975 and 1978, according to a new study by a Yale University auto safety expert. But federal figures show that some 52,000 persons still die each year in motor vehicle crashes -- more than the number of Americans killed during the entire US involvement in Vietnam.
Some safety experts contend that as many as half of those fatalities could be avoided by applying known safety technology to vehicles, more strictly enforcing drunk-driving laws, removing more roadside hazards, and in some cases having less -- not more -- student driver education.
The auto industry, facing increasingly stiff competition from Japanese imports, continues to balk at the idea of more federal safety regulations that, industry officials say, will add unnecessarily to the cost of US-made cars and may not be effective anyway.
The Reagan administration is caught in the middle of the debate with a federal decision pending on whether to rescind a regulation requiring passive restraints (air bags or automatic seat belts) in all cars by model year 1984.
Air bags are at the top of the list of known safety measures that, if applied , could "reduce the fatalities [from vehicle crashes] by way over half," says William Haddon Jr., president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
But air bags, says Ford Motor's safety director Roger Maugh, "will not be an effective market option because they are too expensive," he told a recent hearing of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).
An internal NHTSA document recently made public by the private Center for Auto Safety shows a "confidential" estimate by Ford Motor Company that it would cost $101 per vehicle if 885,000 of its 1982 model cars were equipped with air bags. A Ford Motor spokesman denies such figures were provided and says Ford estimates it would cost an additional $600 to equip some 800,000 new cars with air bags.
The NHTSA estimates the cost of air bags to range from $300 to $400, says NHTSA assistant administrator for rulemaking Michael Finkelstein. "We're all enamored with air bags," he said of NHTSA's technical staff.
Most auto manufacturers have chosen to meet the federal "passive restraint" regulation with automatic seat belts that customers can detach. With fewer than 15 percent of US drivers using the current nonautomatic seat belts, Mr. Finkelstein wonders how many will use the automatic ones. If the estimates are low, then Reagan administration officials must determine what is a "reasonable payoff to society" for the added cost in deciding whether to delay or cancel the regulation.
NHTSA is also studying ways to strengthen the sides of cars to protect passengers and cushion frontend designs to help protect pedestrians.
According to Leon S. Robertson in the recently released Yale study, federal safety measures saved the lives of 26,500 passengers, 7,600 pedestrians, 1,000 bicyclists, and 2,000 motorcyclists in the years 1975-78. Additional federal measures are needed but not likely to occur under the Reagan administration, he says.
Among needed measures, according to Mr. Haddon, are:
* Revised windshield standards to allow a safer kind widely used in Europe. (The NHTSA is studying the European product.)
* A brake light on top of the car trunk, a measure studies have shown reduces rear-end collissions by one-half.
* Tougher enforcement of drunk-driving laws. A drivers perceived risk of apprehension, not the stiffness of penalties, is the best deterrent, he says.
* Review of student driver education. A study in Connecticut shows that when fewer courses were offered, fewer youths obtained licenses and the number of deaths was thereby reduced. Older students are more mature and are better drivers, says Haddon.