WASHINGTON — Consumer activist Ralph Nader fired a shot Tuesday in California's battle over air bags in automobiles, hailing Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) for exposing what he called the Reagan Administration's "hypocrisy" in advocating seat belts, instead of air bags, as safety devices.
Like Brown, Nader said he favors the wearing of seat belts in moving vehicles but does not want legislation that mandates their use to lessen chances of later enacting a federal law requiring air bags. Supporters of air bags contend that they are more effective than seat belts in saving lives, because they are automatically activated in the event of a crash.
Citing the experiences of other nations, Nader told a news briefing that "the steam goes out" of efforts to require air bags "the minute you have a mandatory belt law."
The California Legislature has scheduled hearings today on a mandatory seat belt law sponsored by Brown. So far, 15 states have already enacted similar legislation.
The federal Department of Transportation has said that if states whose residents equal two-thirds of the nation's population pass such measures, then regulations requiring 1990-model cars to have passive restraints such as air bags would be canceled.
Brown has sought assurances from Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Hanford Dole that California, should it pass his bill, will not be counted against the two-thirds population threshold.
The Speaker tried to design the bill so that while effective, it would not comply with federal criteria on seat belt legislation. For example, the measure calls for a maximum fine of $20 for violators, while federal model legislation urges at least a $25 fine.
On June 25, Brown wrote to Dole seeking an "unequivocal answer" on whether the California bill meets the federal standards and asked her if she would "reject attempts to amend or eliminate" these criteria.
Responding Aug. 5, Dole wrote that it would be "premature" to rule on any state statute. She assured Brown that she would not change seat belt criteria without public notice and comment but did not say she would reject any attempt to do so.
Citing Brown's letter, Nader said the Speaker has "exposed the hypocrisy" of the Reagan Administration and "unmasked the true intent" to "change the rules after the (state) laws are passed," thus eliminating the regulations requiring air bags in 1990.