We have been under the care and feeding of the federal government now for the best part of four decades, we drivers, we lovers of cars. Since current presidential candidate and lifelong safety advocate Ralph Nader first came on the scene in 1965, with the publishing of his infamous tome Unsafe At Any Speed, the government has owned us.

Nader, a lawyer and advocate famous for his cheap-suit, small-apartment, bare walls, ten-year-old car lifestyle, accused the car companies generally and General Motors specifically of designing, building and selling unsafe cars to the American buying public. His damnation was focused on the Chevrolet Corvair, a lightweight, rear-engined, air-cooled car patterned after the fabulously successful VW Beetle. The Corvair made a lot more horsepower than the VW, and it had a swing-axle rear suspension system that Nader said made high-speed maneuvers very dangerous in the Corvair. GM brought out its biggest legal and PR guns and went to Washington to tell the world that the Corvair was innocent and that GM built safe cars. Nader won that one bigtime, and the Corvair went out of production in 1969.

It didn't take long for the political bandwagon to get a full load of passengers in Washington, and by 1966, there was a Federal Highway Safety Act, and a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration to take even more of our tax dollars they Washington was already taking to prosecute the Vietnam War.

These were the guys and gals who dreamed up the first set of federal automotive safety standards, and then gave Detroit and the importers two years to rearrange instruments and instrument panels, add front and rear side marker lights, install seatbelts for all occupant positions. Then they thought that removing hood ornaments would be a good idea, and that maybe cars should have bigger bumpers in order withstand crash damage, etc, etc, etc.

They have been a huge governmental and bureaucratic albatross around our necks and the necks of the carmakers ever since. An international automotive safety lobby, and international safety standards for Europe, Japan and the USA have come along, and automotive safety testing has become a multi-billion dollar industry with companies all over the world.Needless to say, the automotive insurance business and its lobby in Washington love every minute of this, every line of every regulation, every suggestion for more and more safety gear made mandatory on our cars. They charge outrageous premiums for car insurance, and they hold the feet of the government and the industry to the fire every chance they get for more and more and more safety regulations.

You see, you can't be in politics or the insurance business or the car business and be against safety. It's all too well ingrained into the national consciousness now, after two generations of gradually increasing regulation. You have to be for safety, every day, all the time. And that, unfortunately, increases both the cost of automobiles and the size of government and the quasi-governmental companies and agencies that run it for us.

This, of course, has redounded beneficially to several of the European car companies, notably Mercedes-Benz, which established the first safety department in the industry ten years or so before the Federal Highway Safety Act of 1966 was implemented and has been crashing cars daily every since. Ten years ago, Mercedes-Benz showed a safety concept vehicle with something like 16 airbags including two for pedestrians up front. That's about what the safety lobby, the insurance lobby, and the government would like to see in every light vehicle of the near future.Second in safety profile after Mercedes-Benz would be the seriously buttoned-up Swedish company Volvo, followed less than a carlength behind by the Saab, two great car companies started independently but now divisions of Ford and General Motors, respectively. The three northern European companies taken together probably know more about crash dynamics, crash dummies, car construction techniques, belts and airbags than anyone else. Volvo has become so good at it that its Ford parent has pretty much devolved all of the crash testing for all of its divisions in Europe, the U.S, and Japan to the magnificent Volvo crash lab in Gothenberg. Saab, with so much good front-wheel-drive safety work behind it, will soon be all but completely absorbed into GM, and whatever GM's safety level will be will be Saab's. But these three taken together have been at the top of the safety game for years, showing the others how it's done.

So, here's the plan. Our government costs far, far too much to run, so let's downsize it the same way the big corporations downsize the American labor pool. Let's explore a five-year moratorium on new auto safety mandates after the 2009 side head-protection airbag system becomes mandatory. Might was well freeze CAFE and emissions while we're at it.

There are university and public libraries full of books containing reams of data, the results of automotive safety research so far. But once you open any one of those books, you will be the victim of statistics: figures lie, and liars figure. We have a good, basic national belief in the automotive safety system, we hear about recalls all the time, so we're not underinformed about our cars. We have lived our lives with gory, gritty black and white pictures of accident scenes in Driver's Ed and elsewhere.

Some safety experts think we have already gone too far in the direction of airbags, contending that the cost-benefit ratio, the theft problems and the insurance rates that go up to cover the companies' ever-higher losses don't justify the additional complexity and cost of the vehicles. I am inclined to agree with them, and that's why I think that the federal safety machinery should be stopped for five years to let the industry look at costs, systems, function, accuracy, repeatability, and all the other aspects of the safety business from the manufacturing side.

I'd like to see us shrink the federal safety bureaucracy during that same 5-year period by finding out just how many federales are doing what and why, and seeing if we really need all that stuff. Why don't we at least temporarily turn all of those feds into licensed driving instructors and let them teach the states how to teach the kids how to really drive. Why don't we take five years to raise the bar on real, useful driver education and vehicle dynamics while the industry goes along with its own research and upgrades? Why don't we spend more time on the major causes, poor training, dim understanding, alcohol, road hypnosis and sleep deprivation? Why don't we, for once and for all, take five years to look upon drunk drivers as the felons they truly are, fine them very heavily, put them in jail, sell their cars at auction, punch their tickets after one conviction, treat them for their illnesses and get them the hell off the road? I guess I'm cranky this month. Maybe it's because it's summertime in America and I've been looking at those gritty black and white newspaper photos again,

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