WASHINGTON - As it tries to craft a rule on whether or how to let motorists disconnect their vehicles' airbags, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration finds itself painted into perhaps the tightest corner in its 31-year history.
Against a backdrop of widespread media coverage of small children being killed by deploying airbags, NHTSA rule-makers are being buffeted by conflicting legal opinions, inconclusive technical information and powerful special and political interests.
In a December radio address, President Clinton said his administration wanted airbag deactivation available to 'any owner who requests it.'
But the National Automobile Dealers Association has warned its members against deactivating airbags even when vehicle owners request it in writing and have NHTSA approval.
In such a charged environment, observers say, a typically rational, scientific decision by agency employees is all but precluded.
'I'd say a lot of politics and a little science,' will go into the rule, said Adrian Lund, senior vice president for research at the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.
The division between public sentiment and expert opinion has created a 'conundrum' for rule writers, said Barbara Mansfield, public affairs manager for Ford Motor Co. 'NHTSA does have a Solomonic decision to make,' she said.
Even lawmakers, normally quick to second-guess executive branch agencies and to respond to constituent pressure, appear wary of trying to untangle the airbag knot.
Finding the right balance for a device that is a proven lifesaver but can occasionally be lethal itself is 'sort of a Godly call that we normally leave to deities much more potent than ourselves,' said Rep. Billy Tauzin, R-La., chairman of the House consumer protection subcommittee, which recently held hearings on airbags.
Tauzin observed at the hearing that it would be 'cruel' to require people to pay for equipping their vehicles with airbags, and then have them pay for deactivation.
In a later interview, though, Tauzin said he is not suggesting the repeal of the federal airbag mandate. But if NHTSA writes the limited deactivation rule he favors, Tauzin said, automakers should foot the bill for those who qualify for the service.
Some other lawmakers are more willing to enter the fray.
One group led by Rep. Dan Miller, R-Fla., has introduced a bill to allow airbag deactivation switches for anyone who wants them.
And Sen. Dirk Kempthorne, R-Idaho, has written but not yet introduced a bill that would repeal the requirement in law that airbags be designed powerful enough to protect adults not wearing seat belts.
Kempthorne, with constituents whose 1-year-old child was decapitated by an accidental airbag deployment, has contended NHTSA could modify the unbelted-adult-protection standard on its own and remove most of the danger to children.
But the agency has said it does not have the authority to go that far.
NHTSA has authorized carmakers to install moderately lower-powered airbags, but only until 2001 when so-called smart airbags are expected to come into use. But carmakers challenge that deadline on the grounds that advanced technology may not be ready by then.
NHTSA Administrator Dr. Ricardo Martinez has consistently maintained that his goal is to retain most of the benefits of airbags while minimizing the risk. He has said that more than 1,900 people have been saved while only 63 have been killed by airbag deployment.
At a recent Senate hearing though, Kempthorne challenged Martinez's numbers. He said that only 189 people have been saved by airbags in the passenger position, while about 40 children have been killed.
A 5-to-1 ratio between adults saved and children killed is unacceptable, he told Martinez.
Lawmakers are not the only ones looking over NHTSA's shoulder.
Transportation Secretary Rodney Slater, a longtime political ally of Clinton's, reportedly has taken a direct role in shaping NHTSA's rule. And whatever comes from the department will be examined by the Office of Management and Budget at the White House before being made public.
Plus, groups that oppose the final decision can challenge it in federal court.
The Association of International Automobile Manufacturers has told NHTSA, for example, that its legal advisers have determined the agency does not have authority under existing law to give a blanket exemption to a safety standard.
Barry Felrice, director of regulatory affairs for the American Automobile Manufacturers Association and a former NHTSA official, said he now sees signs that the agency is backing away from a broad rule allowing unrestricted bag deactivation. Instead, he said, he expects a rule that will require motorists to justify a reason for wanting deactivation.
NHTSA officials hinted as much at the House subcommittee hearing.
'Very few people really need to avail themselves of this opportunity to deactivate their airbags,' Martinez testified.