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.
But the campaign has dramatically increased seat-belt use nationwide, from 12 percent in 1982 to 42 percent in '87.
There is little evidence today of what Diane Steed, head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, calls ``the old myths'' about air bags: that they might cause accidents by going off inadvertently; that they are too expensive; that the public doesn't want them. Tests showed that accidental discharges did not faze drivers.
Making air bags standard equipment dramatically reduces costs. Polls indicated that Americans preferred air bags over automatic seat belts and were willing to pay a significant amount for them.
What was a contentious issue has become a consensus issue, says John Cook, senior vice-president of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
During the years of delay, consumer advocates say, thousands of lives were lost that might have been saved by air bags. But now that the air-bag war is over, these same advocates point to the additional gain in auto safety: Not only are air bags here to stay, but seat-belt laws - courtesy of the auto industry ``for whatever motivation,'' Ms. Steed says - are also making America's roads safer.
Driver's-side air bags will be standard equipment on Chrysler Fifth Avenue, LeBaron Coupe and convertible, Dodge Daytona, Dodge Diplomat, and Plymouth Gran Fury models appearing in auto showrooms next month.
``Extensive ads'' featuring these six models and highlighting the fact that they are equipped with air bags will appear later this month, a Chrysler spokeswoman says.
Ford will introduce a driver's-side air bag as standard on its 1989 Lincoln Continental this fall. GM has an air bag on this year's Oldsmobile Delta 88 as a $350 option (after a $500 rebate).
Ford has said it will put between 500,000 and 1 million air-bag equipped cars on the road in 1990. GM says it will have half a million by then.
A spokeswoman for Chrysler says most of its 1990 cars will have air bags rather than automatic seat belts. (Air bags are a supplement, not an alternative, to seat-belt use, she and others stress.)
Air bags have been standard on all Mercedes-Benz automobiles sold in America since 1986. Some BMWs, Volvos, Porsches, Ford Tempos and Topazes, and the Honda Acura Legend also have air bags as an option or standard.