Court ruling rekindles debate over how best to protect US motorists

The latest U-turn on the passive-restraint issue brings the drive for the safety devices back to its original direction - new automobiles must be equipped with automatic seat belts or air bags by the 1984 model year.

The premise of the recent federal appeals-court ruling reinstating passive-restraint regulations is not disputed. Everyone from consumer to auto manufacturer and insurer agrees that something should be done to reduce the thousands of fatal accidents occurring on US highways each year. But the controversy lies in how safety should be achieved - by government mandate, by individual choice, or by market forces?

Chandler Howell, for example, says ''there's no doubt at all'' that his life was saved by the split-second inflation and deflation of the air bag that popped out of the dashboard of his Volvo during a 1975 crash near his Virginia home. He says he'd buy a car equipped with an air bag if he could find one - even if it added the expected $1,000 to the price.

Meanwhile, a Boston-area Chevrolet salesman says that based on his inability to sell Chevettes equipped with automatic seat belts, he doesn't think they should be required. If an item is unpopular it either won't sell or won't be used, he reasons. The cage-like automatic seat belts ''look like you are crawling into a spider's web,'' he explains, adding that car owners routinely cut the belts from the door mountings.

National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) director Raymond Peck rescinded the passive restraint regulations last October as part of the Reagan administration's attempt to lower the expected $1 billion annual cost of this regulation for the depressed auto industry.

Insurance and consumer groups, who claim the devices will save 10,000 lives a year plus $2.4 billion annually in medical and insurance costs, last week successfully got the US Court of Appeals in the District of Columbia to block the NHTSA action. Under the court ruling, auto manufacturers are required to install automatic restraints in all large and mid-size cars beginning in September 1983.

American automakers, who, if following the zigs and zags of the passive-restraint mandate, would have changed design directions three times in the last year, generally agree they won't be able to make the 1983 deadline.

NHTSA officials had no comment on what actions they will take, but the agency can appeal to the US Supreme Court or seek changes in the law through Congress.

The administration is likely to go through the Supreme Court ''because the Senate (with a Republican majority) is solidly in favor of the standards,'' says Clarence Ditlow, director of the Center for Auto Safety, a Ralph Nader group.

Whether the issue is pressed further or not, controversy over it will remain. Here are some of the important points argued by both sides of the issue:

* Automakers say the standard seat belt is good enough. ''We favor state laws requiring people to wear their belts. . . . Other countries do and it doesn't cost a thin dime. Sixteen states already make child-restraint systems mandatory, why can't we do it for adults?'' says Al Rothenberg, of the Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Association.

The auto industry claims that air bags, effective only in head-on collisions, are too costly and that most automakers will choose the cheaper (about $100 an auto) automatic seat belt. But, they say, most people will just disconnect the belts.

* The American Automobile Association, representing 23 million drivers, backs both passive-restraint concepts.

''One option is to maintain the regular manual seat belts, but that's not logical considering the numbers that use the seat belt (only about 1 in 9 drivers),'' says an AAA official.

* Insurance companies say that passive devices can save up to 10,000 lives a year. They're so certain that Allstate, for example, offers 30 percent cheaper medical premiums on cars equipped with the devices.

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