American politics, for better or worse, is prone to elitist control of various issues, some of which affect the general public in significant ways. This system is described by the distributive model of politics, where people representing narrow segments of society with high stakes in a particular issue influence public policy to a substantial degree. This explanation of policy making can be effectively used to examine and explain some political actions. However, the model is not without its flaws, and other models have developed to explain policy changes that take place under different circumstances, and with anomalous results.
In areas dealing with science and technology, the knowledge-driven approach is often employed to explain policy transitions that do not fit the distributive model. The knowledge-driven approach examines how technological and scientific advances that favor diffuse interests can be used by policy entrepreneurs to bring about broad change, often against powerful and determined special interest groups. The case of air bag regulation can be used to describe and examine both the distributive and knowledge-driven models, as it originally fit distributive explanations, and was eventually taken over by the knowledge-driven system. The discussion of air bag regulation will include an overview of the relevant events, an examination of the distributive system of auto safety, and an explanation of the eventual changes ushered in under the knowledge-driven system. The issue of auto safety regulation began to receive attention in the sixties, when death due to auto accidents rose from under 40, 000 deaths in 1960 to nearly 55, 000 in 1969 (Fortune, 100).
In 1965 and 1966 congressional committees held hearings on specific incidents of automotive safety neglect, which resulted in the passing of the Motor Vehicle Safety Act of 1966 (Nader, Unsafe, xvii). This act was the first of its kind, giving the federal government the right to impose automotive safety regulations on the auto industry. The job of regulation was delegated to the National Highway Safety Bureau (now the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration), a division of the Department of Transportation. This department was given the authority to impose safety regulations, review industry compliance, and study automotive safety in general. In 1970 and 1971 the automotive industry began to discuss the use of passive restraints in collisions to increase safety.
Passive restraints are those which do not require any actions on the part of the driver or passengers, unlike seatbelts. The most popular and seemingly most feasible solution was the air bag. This bag, placed in front of the driver, would deploy automatically in an accident. Initially, the NHTSA planned on making air bags mandatory on ^all cars built in or imported into this country after Jan. 1, 1973 (Wargo, 11). ^ The auto industry responded negatively, saying that there was not enough time to develop a working system, and that a premature addition would open the auto industry up to excessive liability suits.
The NHTSA did not issue the controversial mandate for 1973, but instead issued a mandate that all cars must have passive restraints by 1976. The safety regulations, continually attacked by auto industry experts, were delayed time and again. The situation reached such a standstill that Ralph Nader, policy entrepreneur, accused the NHTSA of ^A virtual de facto moratorium of its safety standards function (Nader, Washington, 2). ^ This continued until 1977, when President Carter appointed former Ralph Nader lobbyist Joan Claybrook to head the NHTSA.
Claybrook actively sought to establish an effective safety restraint law, and her efforts partially paid off when Transportation Secretary Brock Adams ordered all new cars to have safety belts or air bags by 1984 (CQ, 1-2). Debates ensued between the NHTSA, Congress, the auto industry, and eventually President Reagan. In 1981 the NHTSA repealed the regulation, but the courts blocked this action. The case went before the Supreme Court (State Farm Mutual vs.
Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Administration), where it was decided that NHTSA had arbitrarily, as a result of auto industry influence (State Farm, 2, 3). The Supreme Court ordered the Department of Transportation to reconsider the regulation. The Department of Transportation issued new regulations ordering Auto producers to install air bags between 1986 and 1989. But it left one loophole: If, by 1989, states comprising two thirds of the US population implemented mandatory seat-belt use, the federal regulation would not apply. In 1991, President Bush signed an act that required cars made after 1996 to have air bags (CQ, 8). The measure went into effect successfully, ending a battle that began nearly twenty-five years before.
The distributive model dictates that special interest groups with high stakes in a particular policy issue will attempt to influence changes through sub-governments. In the case of air bag regulation, this model is useful for understanding the delays and complications involved in air bag policy. The auto industry used the NHTSA, various presidents, and some congressmen to influence the regulations imposed by the NHTSA. Each of these groups will be examined separately to determine how the auto industry influenced each. The NHTSA is seen as the primary player in the issue of auto safety regulation, but the agency itself is subject to the whims of the President and Congress.
The President appoints the director of the DOT and the NHTSA, while Congress appropriates funding. The first NHTSA director was Dr. William Haddon Jr. , a man truly concerned with auto safety and policy. But his stay was short, and Nixon did not wait long to appoint his own man, Douglas Toms, to the position. Toms was a traffic administrator by profession, and displayed ^little of Nader^s (or Haddon^s) hostility toward the automotive industry (Fortune, 100).
^ Toms did feel a need for automotive safety, and was successful in gaining support from Transportation Secretary John Volpe for air bag research (Nader, Unsafe, xxxiii). But this ally proved to be useless, as Volpe was soon removed from his position. Nader asserts that Volpe^s initiative in this area ^isolated him from the corporate yes-men in the Nixon Administration and probably played a role in his removal as Secretary of Transportation (Washington, 4). ^ It seems that Nixon did not want to upset the auto industry, and his continual inaction in this area only supports this claim. Under Toms^ direction, the NHTSA did receive increased funding and staff, but failed to build the test laboratory for which congressional funds had already been appropriated (Nader, Washington, 2). Instead of performing research in its own labs, the NHTSA contracted out its research, often to auto industries or groups affiliated with automotive production.
When Carter took office, he appointed Joan Claybrook to the head of the NHTSA, an act that signaled change. Seemingly having lost its influence over the office of the President, the auto industry sought control through Congress. While Claybrook had required specific safety measures for automobiles by 1984, Congress sought to undermine this mandate. In 1979, Congress included in its appropriations a rule that barred any federal funds from being used to enforce the air bag regulations (CQ, 4). But the congressional resistance never became a real issue, as Reagan had views similar to those of Nixon. As previously shown, the air bag requirement was lifted, yet the Supreme Court forced the DOT to reconsider.
The DOT regulations for 1986-1989 had a loophole, and the auto industry took advantage of this. Finally, President Bush signed the law that made air bags mandatory. The control of government by the auto industry special interests is clear, but what is not clear is how and why they lost that control. To this end one must examine the situation through the knowledge-driven model. The knowledge-driven model has several distinct, yet related components. It involves a new discovery, credible experts, policy entrepreneurs, timing, significant change, and diffuse interests.
Individually each of these ideas may not seem coherent or meaningful, but each forms a part of the model. And the best way to understand the model is not to explain it in abstract terms, but to examine it in a case study. The beginning is always a new idea, invention, finding, etc. In the case of air bags it is the air bag itself. The idea was originally tested for NASA and airplanes, but its applications elsewhere seemed logical (Resh, 1, 2). Next it is necessary to find out what the experts think about the idea.
In this case two kinds of experts are necessary: automotive safety experts and engineers. The safety experts agreed almost immediately and with little reservation that passive restraints could be effective (Nader, Washington, 19). The main issue among experts was feasibility, an issue that slowed progress of the air bag. With such disagreements among experts, it was easy for the auto companies to delay and confuse the issue. And without clear indications from experts, no government body is willing to openly support a policy change. But in 1975 General Motors offered air bags as options on some cars, and the devices not only worked properly, but saved lives (Nader, Washington, 21).
This, in addition to other studies, settled the issue of expert views. The next component of the knowledge driven model is the policy entrepreneur. While Ralph Nader is an obvious choice for this position, there were others as well. Joan Claybrook, former NHTSA director and Nader underling, now heads Nader^s organization Public Citizen (Grier, 7), a group created for various entrepreneurial activities. In fact, the air bag issue had received support from various people and institutions since it birth. People like Professor Robert Hess, director of the Michigan Highway Safety Research Institute, and Professor Donald Hu elke of the University of Michigan medical school (Fortune, 100, 143).
These people, and people like them, made up the body of the policy entrepreneurs that supported air bags requirements. These entrepreneurs serve to first expose key players to the issue, then to present the issue to the general public. In the case of air bags, the entrepreneurs brought the issue before NTH SA directors, presidents, congressmen, and the public. Nader published various reports and books on auto safety and other issues, which were read by both politicians and the general public. In many ways, Nader^s ^Unsafe at Any Speed^ did for the auto industry what Upton Sinclair^s ^The Jungle^ did for food processing industries. It was already stated that Carter appointed Claybrook to NHTSA director, and this appointment clearly shows how the policy entrepreneurs influenced Carter.
But policy entrepreneurs are only part of a larger picture. For policy to change under the knowledge driven model, three streams of influence must coincide at the same time. These streams are problems, politics, and policy (solutions). The problem stream is based on an identifiable problem in society, whether it is a gradual rise in the significance of a problem, or a sudden emergency or focusing event. In the case of air bags, it was a consistent rise in the number of deaths caused by auto accidents, as previously shown (paragraph 2). The politics stream can come into effect if there is a change of political allies, a shift in national mood, or a change in the balance of political power.
Certainly Nixon was unwilling to impose restrictions on the auto industry, but when Carter came to power there were chances for advancement of the program. This is an example of a change in political allies, where the new president allies himself with a different group that that of the old president. But the congress under Carter was still strongly opposed to the regulations, and opposed them. There is little data about the national mood on the issue, but people generally want to survive auto accidents, and with the help of policy entrepreneurs the public most likely began to support air bags in growing numbers. However, there is no indication that this was the final cause of the shift in the politics stream. The final shift was a change of alliances, where the Supreme Court took the side of air bags, and previously shown.
Once the Supreme Court decides on such an issue, there is that special interest groups can do. Bush undoubtedly saw this, and decided to play for the winning team, the air bag supporters. But there is still one more stream to consider: The policy, or solutions stream. This stream requires a policy-specific, feasible solution. Meaning, that working, reliable, medium priced, unobtrusive air bags had to be available. In possibly one of their bigger blunders, General Motors had air bags as a safety option on some of their cars, and the air bags worked surprisingly well (Nader, Washington, 22).
In addition to European reports of air bag successes, it was clear that the policy stream was open. So where does all of this confusion and madness become clear In the garbage can. The garbage can model states that for a change to occur in the knowledge-driven approach, all three streams of influence must open up at the same time. Or to follow the metaphor, all three streams must end up in the garbage can together, at the same. In essence, each stream is open for a certain amount of time, a window, and all three windows must be open at the same time, for a sufficient amount of time, for change to occur. The problem stream was open from roughly 1960, when auto accidents skyrocketed, through the present.
The politics stream had some brief openings, when Volpe headed the DOT, and when Carter supported air bag regulations, but the real opening came when the Supreme Court forced the DOT to reconsider its air bag delays in 1982. The policy stream was open essentially from 1975 on, when air bags were first installed and used successfully in American consumer automobiles. So the three windows eventually lined up around 1982, and change eventually took place in the nineties. A knowledge-driven change must involve a significant change in policy or attitudes, and there are two distinct ways that policy changes: Bottom-up or top-down. A bottom-up change consists of grass roots change initiated by organized citizen groups that eventually changes the attitudes and policies of politics and government. A top-down change involves an opening in the three policy windows which allows policy entrepreneurs to act in a manner that they believe represents the interests of a large group of people.
The change in air bag regulation is a perfect example of the top-down approach. The three streams lined up, Nader and other policy entrepreneurs spoke out, and there was little the special interest groups could do to stop the change. An essential element of changing from the distributive model to the knowledge-driven model is that in the knowledge^driven model there must be something at stake for a large number of people. In this case the rising death toll has been discussed, but the money issue has not.
Auto accidents cost people money in many different ways. Insurance premiums rise to cover claims; taxes rise to cover disability, cleanups, and emergency personnel; individuals involved in accidents have additional personal costs; and lost wages hurt the economy. In 1972 the NHTSA estimated that the total cost of auto accidents to society was (unadjusted) $40 to 45 billion a year (Fortune, 99). This is a significant cost to society, and the figures for following years were undoubtedly similar. Given the rising death toll and the cost to society, one can easily understand how diffuse the interests were on the air bag issue.
The distributive model of political policy dictates that special interest groups with large stakes act to influence sub-governments in particular ways. While this is often the de facto system of politics in specific areas, events can change in a way that changes the system of political change itself. This change is known as the knowledge-driven model. This model shows how a new idea, supported by credible experts, can be used by policy entrepreneurs to bring about a significant change, affecting diffuse interests. This change took place in the policy debate over air bag regulations in America. When the knowledge-driven model is applied to this area, it can be seen how the invention of air bags was supported by experts, used by Nader and other policy entrepreneurs to change regulations that affect every driver in the nation.
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Publisher Not Available. Pages: 2, 4, 19, 21, 22. Resh, Robert E. Scientific American. ^Air Bags. ^ June 1996.
Online. Available: (web). Paragraphs: 1, 2. State Farm Mutual vs. Motor Vehicle Manufacturers Administration. December 15, 1997.
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