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The Regulatory War Against the Airbag

posted on Thu, Nov 1 2012 9:36 am by Jon S. Vernick

Professor Susan Baker at Johns Hopkins University is one of the founders of the public health approach to injury prevention. Yet Sue credits someone else — Joan Claybrook — for helping to avert a serious injury she might have otherwise sustained.  Several years ago, Sue was in a car crash in which the airbag in her vehicle deployed, likely saving her life. Joan Claybrook played a huge role in getting that airbag into Sue’s car, not to mention the airbags in millions of other vehicles on the road today.

From 1977 to 1981 Joan Claybrook, J.D., headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) — the federal agency responsible for automotive safety in the U.S. Under Claybrook’s leadership in 1977, NHTSA issued the first safety standard to require passive restraints (either air bags or automatic seat belts) in all cars.

From there the story gets even more interesting. Despite estimating that air bags and automatic seatbelts would save thousands of lives, NHTSA rescinded the standard after Claybrook left office in 1982. State Farm Insurance Company and the National Association of Independent Insurers then filed a petition for review of NHTSA’s decision. The Motor Vehicle Manufacturer’s Association also petitioned — but in support of NHTSA’s decision to withdraw the standard.

In 1983 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in a rare 9 to 0 decision that NHTSA’s rescission of its passive restraint standard had been arbitrary and capricious.  In fact, the Court stated that: “For nearly a decade, the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost — the inflatable restraint was proved sufficiently effective.”  How ironic that today some car makers tout multiple airbags in their vehicles as a selling point.

I was fortunate to be able to re-live some of this legal success story when Joan Claybrook recently received the “Community Hero” award from the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy. In her presentation, “The Politics of Safety,” Claybrook described her years in office as well as her subsequent work as President of the Washington, D.C. public interest group, “Public Citizen.” She offered a wealth of battle-tested advice for those wishing to use the law to promote injury prevention.

Of course, Claybrook’s auto safety work extended beyond airbags to include other injury preventing technology. Among many accomplishments, she also championed the third, center-mounted brake light on all cars to improve visibility to following vehicles. In some circles, this is still referred to as a “Joan Claybrook night light.”

When students in my injury prevention course describe a safety hazard they’ve observed, after listening (I hope sympathetically) I often ask them pointedly: “So what are you going to do about it?” Public health lawyers like Joan Claybrook — and increasingly many others — with the help of the Network for Public Health Law, have a ready answer.

This blog was prepared by Jon S, Vernick, J.D., M.P.H,  Collaborator in the Network for Public Health Law – Eastern Region , Co-Directory at the Johns Hopkins Center for Public Health  Law, Deputy Directory at the Johns Hopkins Center for Injury Research and Policy.

The Network for Public Health Law provides information and technical assistance on issues related to public health. The legal information and assistance provided in this document does not constitute legal advice or legal representation. For legal advice, readers should consult a lawyer in their state.


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