If Raymond Peck were a bumper, he could ram a brick wall at cruising speed and bounce back unbroken. He insisted, though, on crashing into a harder object: public opinion.
When he issued a recall notice on himself and resigned in late April as head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, Peck was the latest Reagan antiregulator to learn that the public wants more protection, not less, against corporate threats to health and safety.
In his two years as the Reagan administration's top highway safety official, Peck drove over so many laws and regulations that he appeared to have a stuck accelerator. Only the courts, appealed to by consumer groups and insurance companies, were able to slow him.
The most publicized decision came in June 1982, when judges for the U.S. Appeals Court of the District of Columbia overturned Peck's "administrative fiat" to kill a standard requiring air bags and automatic seat belts. In the case, now before the Supreme Court, the judges wrote: "We must conclude that NHTSA has acted capriciously, wearing blinders that prevented it from reasoned evaluation of methods to fulfill the purposes of the Safety Act."
In addition to the air-bag case, other Peck decisions being challenged in court include his attacks on standards for crash-resistant bumpers, treadware on tires and fuel economy.
As his own bad boy, Peck has his supporters in the automobile industry. A Ford official told a New York Times reporter that "Certainly, there is no question that he has been an able administrator."
Measured by ardency, the strongest supporter of Peck is Peck. Last summer, when I spent about three hours interviewing him in his Department of Transportation office, and last week in a long phone conversation, Peck presented himself as Mr. Auto Safety. Me, against air bags? he asked. "I'm all for them," he said. "Air bags make sense, they are a quantum leap forward."
In the tone of a man about to explain that circles are square, he said he tried to kill the air-bag standard only because "if we tried to mandate it, public acceptability" would be low. "And then the technology would be lost forever." This isn't what Congress, earlier NHTSA directors or public opinion polls had concluded.
As proof of his zeal for saving lives through the proven reliablity of air bags, Peck boasts of his current campaign to install the devices on as many as 5,000 cars in the fleet of federal vehicles owned by the General Services Administration.
In fact, according to a GSA official, it was Ralph Nader, in early 1982, who successfully rallied the agency to take steps to bring safety to the federal fleet. With a consensus already formed, Peck joined in as a follower, not a leader. As he pats his own back and talks now of "quantum leaps forward," the reality is that safety continues to lurch ahead only by inches. Instead of 5 million cars equipped with air bags, we will have only 5,000.
Other Peck boasts are hollow. He speaks of being tougher than tough when a showdown was needed with Detroit. "I got the most expensive recall ever from General Motors," he says of the recent $30 million defective brakes case involving 240,000 GM X-body cars.
Clarence Ditlow of the Center for Auto Safety has a more dispassionate view. He reports that the recall was more than 16 months overdue: "In July 1981, NHTSA conducted brake tests that showed defects in the manual transmission X cars. It wasn't until the media and whistleblowers revealed the tests that the agency was forced to do a recall. The tragedy is that between July 1981 and January 1983, when NHTSA made the defect determination, there were at least six known fatalities in that car."
Peck's wildest claim is that "the success" of his deregulatory approaches at NHTSA is now showing up in the "dramatic reductions" in highway fatalities in the last two years. It was the economic downturn, not Peck, that helped reduce the death rate. With less money, people do less discretionary driving, which can be the most hazardous. They take fewer pleasure trips, fewer hops in the car to the bar when they can drink at home. It was Peck's luck to be in office during the recession.
Peck came to his job as a coal industry lobbyist who had no experience in highway safety. He leaves still not understanding the law or his agency's role in enforcing it. As the tow-away truck comes for Peck, the bill for his two years of antisafety recklessness must be paid by the public. No-fault insurance doesn't cover it.