- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 13, 2000

Former NHTSA head says The Times wrong on air bags

Once again, The Washington Times has been manipulated by the automotive industry, which has made a cottage industry of trying to shift the blame for the deaths caused by the cut-rate air bags that a number of manufacturers installed in the 1990s.

In the April 21 editorial "Death by safety experts," The Times demonstrates that it is either woefully ignorant of the facts or guilty of misleading readers. Either way, the standards of responsible journalism have been abandoned in a fog of factual errors and, apparently, a blind revulsion to any form of government safety standards to protect against senseless death and injury.

Let me set the record straight: I was the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) 20 years ago. It was four years after I left NHTSA when the final passive-restraint air-bag standard was issued by then Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. It's interesting that her name never shows up in the repeated, gratuitous attacks on me in The Times.

Yes, air bags have been implicated in the tragic and unnecessary deaths of more than 150 people in low-speed crashes. These deaths were not the result of some mysterious flaw in all types of air bags, as The Times implies. They occurred because some automakers installed poorly designed systems. Nothing is more telling than the fact that some automakers have experienced no air-bag deaths. Honda, for instance, has put 8 million air-bag-equipped cars and trucks on the road since 1993 with no air-bag-related deaths. How can this be?

The vast majority of air-bag-related deaths could have been prevented if manufacturers initially had installed dual-inflation systems and air bags that did not inflate in crashes occurring at very low speeds. Some air bags are triggered in crashes involving speeds as low as 9 mph as opposed to a more reasonable 15 to 18 mph. There is no need for an air bag in crashes below 15 mph, and nothing in the government standard requires it. Dual-inflation air bags, which have been available for years, inflate with less force in low-speed crashes and more force in high-speed crashes. Some automakers belatedly have installed these systems, with good results. General Motors sold them in 1974, successfully protecting smaller occupants.

The Times suggests the government should reconsider its air-bag mandate. There is no question that removing air bags from new vehicles would cost lives. More than 5,500 people are alive today because of air bags, and countless serious injuries have been prevented. The air-bag rule published under Mrs. Dole's watch gave manufacturers great discretion to allow for innovation. The abuse of this privilege by some manufacturers sparked Congress to require issuance of a comprehensive new safety standard.

Last week, the Department of Transportation released its new standard. Unfortunately, the White House caved in to the auto industry and overruled the department's recommendation for a rigorous 30-mph crash-test standard in favor of a weak 25-mph crash test.

This test will not guarantee safety in higher-speed crashes, when air bags are needed most. What it will do is allow automakers to avoid redesigning their highly profitable sport utility vehicles, many of which do not meet a 30-mph test. Once again, the manufacturers will not have to provide the superior protection possible with advanced air-bag technology. Many won't.



Public Citizen


Column illustrates Arkansas has more to offer than president

I want to compliment Wesley Pruden on an excellent column that I read with a great deal of interest. I found "Listening to the voice of an authentic man" (Pruden on Politics, May 9) especially good because of the contrast between the two men showcased in it: William Jefferson Clinton (whose boyhood home was three streets away from me when I lived in Hope, Ark.) and Judge William J. Smith.

Of the two, I prefer that Judge Smith represent Arkansas. It is sad that Mr. Clinton, not Judge Smith, comes to mind at the mere mention of that state.

Thanks to Mr. Pruden for reminding us that a state is not represented solely by one badly flawed man.


Wake Forest, N.C.

Remembering a terrible spring for the Baltic States

At the outbreak of spring in Washington, Robert A. Schadler recalled in his column "Remembering the dead" (Op-Ed, April 25) the massacre of Polish officers in Katyn Forest by the Soviets in the spring of 1940. This is by far not the only Soviet atrocity committed during springtime. On March 25, 1949, more than 93,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were deported from their homes to the Gulag camps in the far regions of the Soviet Union. According to a decree of the Soviet Union's Council of Ministers, this was done in order to "eradicate banditry and nationalism once and for all" in the newly annexed Baltic republics. Local functionaries had elected more prosperous farmers, called kulaks, for deportation in order to speed up the collectivization of agriculture.

This was the second mass deportation of the Baltic people. The first had occurred on June 14, 1941, when more than 42,000 Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians were deported. This deportation was carried out according to the instructions of the Soviet Union's deputy commissar of state security, Gen. Ivan Serov, on Oct. 11, 1939. This means that the Soviet Union had been prepared for this action when the Baltic States were negotiating with the Soviet Union Mutual Assistance Pacts to grant Soviet armed forces military bases on their territories.

Unfortunately, the principle on which the operations of the KGB and its forerunners had been based, namely that the end justifies the the means, is still honored by its successor, the FSB. By its accession to NATO, Poland is protected from any further Russian conspiracy. The Baltic States, however, still are open to Russian mischief.

During this springtime, let us not commemorate anniversaries of past tragic events but celebrate the victory of the human spirit over injustice and repression.



Albright should resign over missing laptops

That two more laptop computers are missing from the State Department's inventory prompts me to write ("State reports two more laptops gone," May 6).

The pathetic response of the State Department spokesman, that "only the computer that disappeared in February was known to have classified material on it," is ludicrous. Is the level of control of classified material at State such that the department has no idea what classified material may be reposing on unclassified computers?

If the system were working as it should, and if these two missing computers were in fact unclassified, there would be no doubt that they contained no classified material. The records would reveal what classified material was signed out and to whom and whether these people have personal unclassified computers.

I suggest an immediate check of all unclassified computers at State to determine if classified material has been transferred to them.

As one who worked for many years with security clearances of different levels, including special ones, I was required many times to certify that I had read and understood the espionage laws and the consequences of ignoring them. Penalties can include death for certain transgressions.

Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright is content with railing against such occurrences and vowing that they will not happen again, but these severe security lapses occurred on her watch. She should offer her resignation as a consequence. For cases as severe as these, heads should roll. Heads should have rolled much earlier. So far, nothing has happened.

This situation of the missing computers is scandalous. It is equally scandalous that nothing is being done about it. This situation calls for the resignation of the one at the top, namely Mrs. Albright.



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