Automotive Air Bags

 

American politics, for better or worse, is prone to elitist control of
various issues, some of which affect the general public in significant
ways. This system is described by the distributive model of politics,
where people representing narrow segments of society with high stakes in a
particular issue influence public policy to a substantial degree. This
explanation of policy making can be effectively used to examine and
explain some political actions. However, the model is not without its
flaws, and other models have developed to explain policy changes that take
place under different circumstances, and with anomalous results. In areas
dealing with science and technology, the knowledge-driven approach is
often employed to explain policy transitions that do not fit the
distributive model. The knowledge-driven approach examines how
technological and scientific advances that favor diffuse interests can be
used by policy entrepreneurs to bring about broad change, often against
powerful and determined special interest groups. The case of air bag
regulation can be used to describe and examine both the distributive and
knowledge-driven models, as it originally fit distributive explanations,
and was eventually taken over by the knowledge-driven system. The
discussion of air bag regulation will include an overview of the relevant
events, an examination of the distributive system of auto safety, and an
explanation of the eventual changes ushered in under the knowledge-driven
system. 
 The issue of auto safety regulation began to receive attention in the
sixties, when death due to auto accidents rose from under 40,000 deaths in
1960 to nearly 55,000 in 1969 (Fortune, 100). In 1965 and 1966
congressional committees held hearings on specific incidents of automotive
safety neglect, which resulted in the passing of the Motor Vehicle Safety
Act of 1966 (Nader, Unsafe, xvii). This act was the first of its kind,
giving the federal government the right to impose automotive safety
regulations on the auto industry. The job of regulation was delegated to
the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic
Safety Administration), a division of the Department of Transportation. 
This department was given the authority to impose safety regulations,
review industry compliance, and study automotive safety in general. In
1970 and 1971 the automotive industry began to discuss the use of passive
restraints in collisions to increase safety. Passive restraints are those
which do not require any actions on the part of the driver or passengers,
unlike seatbelts. The most popular and seemingly most feasible solution
was the air bag. This bag, placed in front of the driver, would deploy
automatically in an accident. Initially, the NHTSA planned on making air
bags mandatory on ^Óall cars built in or imported into this country after
Jan. 1, 1973 (Wargo, 11).^Ô The auto industry responded negatively, saying
that there was not enough time to develop a working system, and that a
premature addition would open the auto industry up to excessive liability
suits. The NHTSA did not issue the controversial mandate for 1973, but
instead issued a mandate that all cars must have passive restraints by
1976. The safety regulations, continually attacked by auto industry
experts, were delayed time and again. The situation reached such a
standstill that Ralph Nader, policy entrepreneur, accused the NHTSA of ^ÓA
virtual de facto moratorium of its safety standards function (Nader,
Washington, 2).^Ô This continued until 1977, when President Carter
appointed former Ralph Nader lobbyist Joan Claybrook to head the NHTSA. 
Claybrook actively sought to establish an effective safety restraint law,
and her efforts partially paid off when Transportation Secretary Brock
Adams ordered all new cars to have safety belts or air bags by 1984 (CQ,
1-2). Debates ensued between the NHTSA, Congress, the auto industry, and
eventually President Reagan. In 1981 the NHTSA repealed the regulation,
but the courts blocked this action. The case went before the Supreme
Court (State Farm Mutual vs. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Administration),
where it was decided that NHTSA had arbitrarily, as a result of auto
industry influence (State Farm, 2, 3). The Supreme Court ordered the
Department of Transportation to reconsider the regulation. The Department
of Transportation issued new regulations ordering Auto producers to
install air bags between 1986 and 1989. But it left one loophole: If, by
1989, states comprising two thirds of the US population implemented
mandatory seat-belt use, the federal regulation would not apply. In 1991,
President Bush signed an act that required cars made after 1996 to have
air bags (CQ, 8). The measure went into effect successfully, ending a
battle that began nearly twenty-five years before. The distributive model
dictates that special interest groups with high stakes in a particular
policy issue will attempt to influence changes through sub-governments. 
In the case of air bag regulation, this model is useful for understanding
the delays and complications involved in air bag policy. The auto
industry used the NHTSA, various presidents, and some congressmen to
influence the regulations imposed by the NHTSA. Each of these groups will
be examined separately to determine how the auto industry influenced each. 
 The NHTSA is seen as the primary player in the issue of auto safety
regulation, but the agency itself is subject to the whims of the President
and Congress. The President appoints the director of the DOT and the
NHTSA, while Congress appropriates funding. The first NHTSA director was
Dr. William Haddon Jr., a man truly concerned with auto safety and policy. 
But his stay was short, and Nixon did not wait long to appoint his own
man, Douglas Toms, to the position. Toms was a traffic administrator by
profession, and displayed ^Ólittle of Nader^Òs (or Haddon^Òs) hostility
toward the automotive industry (Fortune, 100).^Ô Toms did feel a need for
automotive safety, and was successful in gaining support from
Transportation Secretary John Volpe for air bag research (Nader, Unsafe,
xxxiii). But this ally proved to be useless, as Volpe was soon removed
from his position. Nader asserts that Volpe^Òs initiative in this area
^Óisolated him from the corporate yes-men in the Nixon Administration and
probably played a role in his removal as Secretary of Transportation
(Washington, 4).^Ô It seems that Nixon did not want to upset the auto
industry, and his continual inaction in this area only supports this
claim. Under Toms^Ò direction, the NHTSA did receive increased funding
and staff, but failed to build the test laboratory for which congressional
funds had already been appropriated (Nader, Washington, 2). Instead of
performing research in its own labs, the NHTSA contracted out its
research, often to auto industries or groups affiliated with automotive
production. When Carter took office, he appointed Joan Claybrook to the
head of the NHTSA, an act that signaled change. Seemingly having lost its
influence over the office of the President, the auto industry sought
control through Congress. While Claybrook had required specific safety
measures for automobiles by 1984, Congress sought to undermine this
mandate. In 1979, Congress included in its appropriations a rule that
barred any federal funds from being used to enforce the air bag
regulations (CQ, 4). But the congressional resistance never became a real
issue, as Reagan had views similar to those of Nixon. As previously
shown, the air bag requirement was lifted, yet the Supreme Court forced
the DOT to reconsider. The DOT regulations for 1986-1989 had a loophole,
and the auto industry took advantage of this. Finally, President Bush
signed the law that made air bags mandatory. The control of government by
the auto industry special interests is clear, but what is not clear is how
and why they lost that control. To this end one must examine the
situation through the knowledge-driven model. The knowledge-driven model
has several distinct, yet related components. It involves a new
discovery, credible experts, policy entrepreneurs, timing, significant
change, and diffuse interests. Individually each of these ideas may not
seem coherent or meaningful, but each forms a part of the model. And the
best way to understand the model is not to explain it in abstract terms,
but to examine it in a case study. The beginning is always a new idea,
invention, finding, etc. In the case of air bags it is the air bag
itself. The idea was originally tested for NASA and airplanes, but its
applications elsewhere seemed logical (Resh, 1,2). Next it is necessary
to find out what the experts think about the idea. In this case two kinds
of experts are necessary: automotive safety experts and engineers. The
safety experts agreed almost immediately and with little reservation that
passive restraints could be effective (Nader, Washington, 19). The main
issue among experts was feasibility, an issue that slowed progress of the
air bag. With such disagreements among experts, it was easy for the auto
companies to delay and confuse the issue. And without clear indications
from experts, no government body is willing to openly support a policy
change. But in 1975 General Motors offered air bags as options on some
cars, and the devices not only worked properly, but saved lives (Nader,
Washington, 21). This, in addition to other studies, settled the issue of
expert views. The next component of the knowledge driven model is the
policy entrepreneur. While Ralph Nader is an obvious choice for this
position, there were others as well. Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA
director and Nader underling, now heads Nader^Òs organization Public
Citizen (Grier, 7), a group created for various entrepreneurial
activities. In fact, the air bag issue had received support from various
people and institutions since it birth. People like Professor Robert
Hess, director of the Michigan Highway Safety Research Institute, and
Professor Donald Huelke of the University of Michigan medical school
(Fortune, 100, 143). These people, and people like them, made up the body
of the policy entrepreneurs that supported air bags requirements. These
entrepreneurs serve to first expose key players to the issue, then to
present the issue to the general public. In the case of air bags, the
entrepreneurs brought the issue before NTHSA directors, presidents,
congressmen, and the public. Nader published various reports and books on
auto safety and other issues, which were read by both politicians and the
general public. In many ways, Nader^Òs ^ÓUnsafe at Any Speed^Ô did for
the auto industry what Upton Sinclair^Òs ^ÓThe Jungle^Ô did for food
processing industries. It was already stated that Carter appointed
Claybrook to NHTSA director, and this appointment clearly shows how the
policy entrepreneurs influenced Carter. But policy entrepreneurs are only
part of a larger picture. For policy to change under the knowledge driven
model, three streams of influence must coincide at the same time. These
streams are problems, politics, and policy (solutions). The problem
stream is based on an identifiable problem in society, whether it is a
gradual rise in the significance of a problem, or a sudden emergency or
focusing event. In the case of air bags, it was a consistent rise in the
number of deaths caused by auto accidents, as previously shown (paragraph
2). The politics stream can come into effect if there is a change of
political allies, a shift in national mood, or a change in the balance of
political power. Certainly Nixon was unwilling to impose restrictions on
the auto industry, but when Carter came to power there were chances for
advancement of the program. This is an example of a change in political
allies, where the new president allies himself with a different group that
that of the old president. But the congress under Carter was still
strongly opposed to the regulations, and opposed them. There is little
data about the national mood on the issue, but people generally want to
survive auto accidents, and with the help of policy entrepreneurs the
public most likely began to support air bags in growing numbers. However,
there is no indication that this was the final cause of the shift in the
politics stream. The final shift was a change of alliances, where the
Supreme Court took the side of air bags, and previously shown. Once the
Supreme Court decides on such an issue, there is that special interest
groups can do. Bush undoubtedly saw this, and decided to play for the
winning team, the air bag supporters. But there is still one more stream
to consider: The policy, or solutions stream. This stream requires a
policy-specific, feasible solution. Meaning, that working, reliable,
medium priced, unobtrusive air bags had to be available. In possibly one
of their bigger blunders, General Motors had air bags as a safety option
on some of their cars, and the air bags worked surprisingly well (Nader,
Washington, 22). In addition to European reports of air bag successes, it
was clear that the policy stream was open. So where does all of this
confusion and madness become clear? In the garbage can. The garbage can
model states that for a change to occur in the knowledge-driven approach,
all three streams of influence must open up at the same time. Or to
follow the metaphor, all three streams must end up in the garbage can
together, at the same. In essence, each stream is open for a certain
amount of time, a window, and all three windows must be open at the same
time, for a sufficient amount of time, for change to occur. The problem
stream was open from roughly 1960, when auto accidents skyrocketed,
through the present. The politics stream had some brief openings, when
Volpe headed the DOT, and when Carter supported air bag regulations, but
the real opening came when the Supreme Court forced the DOT to reconsider
its air bag delays in 1982. The policy stream was open essentially from
1975 on, when air bags were first installed and used successfully in
American consumer automobiles. So the three windows eventually lined up
around 1982, and change eventually took place in the nineties. A
knowledge-driven change must involve a significant change in policy or
attitudes, and there are two distinct ways that policy changes: Bottom-up
or top-down. A bottom-up change consists of grass roots change initiated
by organized citizen groups that eventually changes the attitudes and
policies of politics and government. A top-down change involves an
opening in the three policy windows which allows policy entrepreneurs to
act in a manner that they believe represents the interests of a large
group of people. The change in air bag regulation is a perfect example of
the top-down approach. The three streams lined up, Nader and other policy
entrepreneurs spoke out, and there was little the special interest groups
could do to stop the change. An essential element of changing from the
distributive model to the knowledge-driven model is that in the
knowledge^Ödriven model there must be something at stake for a large
number of people. In this case the rising death toll has been discussed,
but the money issue has not. Auto accidents cost people money in many
different ways. Insurance premiums rise to cover claims; taxes rise to
cover disability, cleanups, and emergency personnel; individuals involved
in accidents have additional personal costs; and lost wages hurt the
economy. In 1972 the NHTSA estimated that the total cost of auto
accidents to society was (unadjusted) $40 to 45 billion a year (Fortune,
99). This is a significant cost to society, and the figures for following
years were undoubtedly similar. Given the rising death toll and the cost
to society, one can easily understand how diffuse the interests were on
the air bag issue. The distributive model of political policy dictates
that special interest groups with large stakes act to influence
sub-governments in particular ways. While this is often the de facto
system of politics in specific areas, events can change in a way that
changes the system of political change itself. This change is known as
the knowledge-driven model. This model shows how a new idea, supported by
credible experts, can be used by policy entrepreneurs to bring about a
significant change, affecting diffuse interests. This change took place
in the policy debate over air bag regulations in America. When the
knowledge-driven model is applied to this area, it can be seen how the
invention of air bags was supported by experts, used by Nader and other
policy entrepreneurs to change regulations that affect every driver in the
nation. BIBLIOGRAPHY

Congressional Quarterly Researcher. ^ÓAuto Makers Faulted.^Ô July 14,
1995. Online. Available:
(http://library.cq.com/cgi-bin/do_form.pl?cqrsrchOP&ID=7085).
Paragraphs: 1, 2, 4, 8.

Fortune Magazine. ^ÓAuto Safety Need A New Road Map.^Ô April 1972.
Pages: 99, 100, 143.

Grier, Peter. The Christian Science Monitor. ^ÓNew Air Bag Laws Will Go
Into Effect ^ÖUnless States Make Riders Buckle. Online. Available:
(http://www.csmonitor.com/archive/archiveascii.html). Paragraph: 7.

Nader, Ralph. Unsafe at Any Speed. Grossman, New York, 1972. Pages
xvii, xxxiii.

Nader, Ralph. ^ÓWashington Under The Influence: A Ten Year Review of
Auto Safety Amidst Industrial Opposition.^Ô April, 1976. Publisher Not
Available. Pages: 2, 4, 19, 21, 22.

Resh, Robert E. Scientific American. ^ÓAir Bags.^Ô June 1996. Online.
Available: (http://www.sciam.com/0696issue/0696working.html).
Paragraphs: 1, 2.

State Farm Mutual vs. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Administration.
December 15, 1997. Online. Available:
(http://moby.ucdavis.edu/gaws/166/quebec/FARM.HTM). Paragraphs: 2, 3.

Wargo, James. Product Engineering. ^ÓWashington Tells Detroit: Cure
Auto