Air-Bag Booster Steers Clear of Safety Blame: Claybrook Won't Side with Big Three

Article excerpt

U.S. automakers two weeks ago toyed with an idea that once would have seemed inconceivable - a joint news conference with their most ardent critic, consumer advocate Joan Claybrook.

Ms. Claybrook's watchdog group, Public Citizen, finally had something in common with the automakers: Both were getting blamed for the growing number of children and small adults being killed by overly explosive air bags, and both needed to come up with a solution.

"We would have loved to have had a joint press conference," said Elliott S. Hall, Ford Motor Co.'s chief Washington lobbyist. "This issue is a very sensitive, volatile issue. We wanted to solve it in concert."

But the idea disintegrated - for reasons that neither side would discuss. And last week Ms. Claybrook took the offensive against the automakers at her own news conference, blaming them for the deaths of 31 children and 19 adults who have been killed by air bags since 1993.

She accepted no blame for failing to alert the public to the danger that air bags have posed to small children and certain adults.

Ms. Claybrook could not be reached for a follow-up interview, but industry sources said at least one of the Big Three manufacturers refused to share the same stage with Ms. Claybrook in pushing for new government regulations to fine-tune the original 1984 air-bag standard.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration is now working on a plan to correct the air-bag problems. Meanwhile, the bare-knuckles relationship between Ms. Claybrook and the U.S. auto industry continues.

"There is essentially no dialogue between the two groups," said Brian O'Neill, director of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety. "There's a lot of rhetoric used as if one person is a killer and the other person is a good person. . . . The kind of rhetoric that's used feeds this uncomfortable relationship."

Such mutual antagonism, critics say, led Ms. Claybrook to play down the warnings that were issued about air bags by General Motors Corp. and other automakers - including studies showing that the bags might be dangerous to children.

"We were trashed as if we were only trying to stall, we were only trying to delay," said Ford's Mr. Hall. "They've got their own agenda, and one of their agendas is they've got to be on the opposite side of us."

The mistrust goes all the way back to Ms. Claybrook's tenure as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration. According to former NHTSA officials, Ms. Claybrook expanded the agency's traditional emphasis on such things as drunken driving and seat-belt use to also include carmaking issues such as air bags.

"She liked to push manufacturers," said Barry Felrice, a former NHTSA official who now works for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association. "When they said something . …