WASHINGTON -- The Reagan administration's repeal of a regulation requiring all new automobiles to have air bags or automatic seatbelts harms the driving public, the Supreme Court was told.
James Fitzpatrick, representing the insurance industry, urged the justices Tuesday to reinstate a rule requiring passive restraints in cars that could 'save 6,000 lives a year and 100,000 injuries per year.'
More than 50,000 die on the roads annually.
'It's the most important safety regulation on the books,' Fitzpatrick said of the so-called passive restraints jettisoned -- with President Reagan's support -- by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1981.
But the federal government and the nation's automakers, appealing a lower court ruling upholding the mandatory restraints, said the regulation ordering new safety devices -- initially set to take effect on 1983 cars -- should not be revived.
Lloyd Cutler, representing the auto industry, said there was public resistance to both seatbelts that lock in place when a motorist closes the door, or air bags that inflate on impact to cushion a crash.
The Big Three auto manufacturers admit they are not designing or installing the restraints pending a final decision by Supreme Court, expected by July.
The auto industry views were supported by Solicitor General Rex Lee, arguing for the government, who called the rule 'another expensive example of regulation.'
The government, worried about the ailing auto industry and prompted by Reagan's campaign pledge to wipe out costly regulations, revoked the safety regulation just 10 months before it was to take effect. It said the rule would drive up auto prices by $1 billion a year, with safety savings 'substantially uncertain.'
Under questioning by justices, Lee argued that Secretary of Transportation Drew Lewis saw the 'regulation would not do the job, and it was not irrational for him to rescind (it).'
Fitzpatrick, on behalf of State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., countered that by revoking the rule, the federal agency 'was shifting back to the auto industry the control over safety progress.'
Repeal of equipment requirements was 'arbitrary and capricious' - as the appeals court found -- because the agency did not give sufficient reasons and rejected other alternatives that had been shown to protect drivers.
'This is not Buck Rogers space age technology. It works,' Fitzpatrick said of air bags and automatic seat belt. He accused Lewis of abandoning 'technologies that work' because of uncertainties over the safety of a new detachable automatic belt promoted by the auto makers.
Justice William Rehnquist expressed his skepticism over whether the court should be deciding between competing technolgies. 'That's certainly up to the secretary,' he said.
'Even if the agency was right and the new GM (General Motors) belt was a lemon as far as safety is concerned, it was arbitrary and capricious to rescind the regulation,' Fitzpatrick replied.
At the time the regulation was repealed, NHTSA administrator Raymond Peck said the detachable belts would be more expensive -- but not more effective -- than manual seat belts now used by only 11 percent of U.S. motorists.
The U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia reinstated the regulation and threatened to require it for all cars manufactured after Sept. 1, 1983.