WASHINGTON - Dr. Ricardo Martinez says he does not believe in the blame game.
But in retrospect, the administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration said last week, the auto industry was far less helpful than it should have been when airbag-related deaths began emerging as a hot-button issue about a year and a half ago.
'We said, 'You got a bright idea? You bring it in. You put it in.' We got nothing. Nothing except, 'You need to do something,' ' Martinez complained.
In an interview, Martinez did credit automakers with helping to educate the public about the dangers and benefits of airbags through the Airbag Safety Campaign.
And he credited the industry with ultimately making suggestions that refined NHTSA's multipronged plan to minimize airbag risks to children and small adults and retain protection for other people.
But his pent-up irritation at the lack of technical help early in the process spilled out when he recounted events going back to the fall of 1995. 'Remember, again, we're not getting anything submitted by all these companies who are making record profits,' he said. 'But through the taxpayer, we're going to figure this out. Bottom line, it all fell onto us.'
NHTSA calculates that 65 people, including 39 children, have been killed by deploying airbags since 1990. Many of the children were killed in low-speed accidents.
Despite widespread criticism that NHTSA moved too slowly in tackling the issue of airbag deaths, Martinez maintained that his agency actually moved quickly.
In a matter of months, he said, it isolated the causes of airbag injuries and deaths, identified and tested possible remedies - in the absence of good data about crash effects on children - and proposed a series of actions both for the short term and the long haul, without creating new dangers.
Martinez, whose agency is still trying to craft a rule to allow airbag deactivation, said he was particularly irked by outside groups and commentators who accused NHTSA of delay. He said the critics implied there was some kind of simple answer to the problem, without offering proposals themselves.
He recalled further that the realization that airbags were injuring and killing people came near the peak of anti-government sentiment.
'Two years ago, we were the poster boys for government (overregulation). Now I'm being told I got to do more. I can't do enough,' he said.
Told of Martinez's remarks, Andrew Card, president of the American Automobile Manufacturers Association, maintained that the industry helped call attention to the problem - and the solution - and the need to work toward a solution quickly.
'I don't want to say they (NHTSA) were outside the process, but we were clearly inside. We were working toward a solution,' he said.
Card said carmakers last August initiated the proposal for a rule, now in effect, that allows lower-powered airbags as at least a temporary way to reduce risk to children and small adults.
Card said he, too, opposes finger-pointing, but he said he wished NHTSA had moved more quickly.
'If I were to criticize them, it was (their) not approving depowered airbags as early as they could,' Card said. 'The good news is, it's happened. (But) we think it could have happened a couple months earlier than it did.'