The newsprint is likely brittle and the ink undoubtedly faded on the page where Pogo, the snub-nosed comic strip character, mouthed the declaration: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

But these words, though decades old, still ring true. Just ask stakeholders in today's beleaguered auto industry.

Hysteria about vehicle safety has so muddied the waters, Pogo might mistake them for his home in the Okefenokee Swamp. Meanwhile, American motorists are playing possum.

Cell phones in hand and lawyers on retainer, they are dead to the world when the call goes out for caution.

“Study after study tells us that the driver is the primary contributory factor in crashes,” says Mark Edwards, managing director of traffic safety for the American Automobile Assn.

Not tires. Not SUVs.

This leaves automakers and component suppliers, prodded by regulations and threat of litigation, fighting a familiar foe — a public with habits which have haunted us for generations. Consider:

  • Nearly one-third of all motorists fail to use lap/shoulder belts, even though research shows they reduce by up to 60% the risk of fatal injury, says the National Highway Traffic Safety Admin;

  • In 1999 — the most recent year for which NHTSA as complete statistics — drivers whose blood-alcohol concentration was 0.1 grams per deciliter or greater, accounted for more than 20% of all traffic fatalities;

  • Exceeding posted speed limits, driving too fast for conditions or street racing contributed to 12,628 deaths in 1999 — 30% of all fatalities recorded that year;

  • Speeding and driver intoxication were factors in 42% of all fatal crashes in 1999.

“By some measures you might argue that we have a great deal of compliance,” Mr. Edwards says. “But what we have is compliance by that part of the driving population that has a low probability of being involved in an accident. … Most of the people who have accidents are not wearing belts.”

He admits to exasperation because, while these motorists inflict suffering, they also bleed.

“One of the things that has frustrated me is … we can't find the triggers that change their behavior.”

Now, new driving patterns are emerging. And they are no less disturbing.

A recent study distributed by NHTSA shows 84% of American mobile phone users believe using a phone while driving is a distraction and increases the likelihood of accidents. However, 61% of these respondents admit they use their phones behind the wheel.

All of which poses a fundamental question: Should change come from you and me, or R&D?

There is no hint of significant improvement in driver behavior. When it comes to responsibility for safety, automakers appear to be left holding the bag.

Through most of the 1990s, fatalities among occupants of cars and trucks — light and large — were relatively flat.

In 1991, there were 30,842. They bottomed out the following year at 30,070 and peaked in 1997 at 33,171 — even though Washington mandated front air bags on all new vehicles three years earlier.

Although considerably lower than 1989's total of 34,472, 1999 still saw 32,819 car and truck occupants lose their lives in crashes.

And as of 1999, the fatality rate per million vehicle miles traveled — while down significantly from 2.2 in 1989 — has been frozen at 1.6 for three years.

This despite the refinement of safety features such as air bags and traction control.

“The vehicles are getting better and better,” says Priya Prasad, Ford Motor Co'.s manager of safety research and development. “If you look at fatality rates in small cars today, they are better. Today, meaning the late ’90s, a small car is safer than a large car from the 1960s and ’70s.”

Indeed, statistics compiled from National Safety Council data show large-car fatalities per million vehicle miles exceeded two during the 1970s. But in the 1990s, there were fewer than two small-car fatalities per million miles.

So the auto industry's challenge is clear: Reduce driver error margins without reducing profit margins. Not surprisingly, there is more hope to accomplish the former goal. Information is the key, Mr. Prasad says.

“Look at visibility, for example. There's a lot of accidents taking place during lane-change maneuvers. … So if you can provide better knowledge of what's around the car, 360-degree vision for example, those things give the driver a lot more information.”

Volvo addresses this with its Safety Concept Car. Unveiled at the 2001 North American International Auto Show, it has A-pillars which feature Plexiglas to eliminate blind spots. Meanwhile, strategically mounted sensors and cameras feed data to the cockpit so the driver knows the car's orientation in relation to the road and other vehicles.

“And if he is making a mistake, maybe we can warn him,” Mr. Prasad says of such technology, the foundation of safety in the future. “All of these things end up being what we call accident avoidance. … And the ultimate thing is to intervene. But there's a lot of issues with intervention.”

Does the car simply reduce speed or automatically apply the brakes?

“What we are looking at right now is what we call panic brake assist,” Mr. Prasad says. “So if you take your foot off the accelerator and you hit the brake, the time lag that exists can be shortened by panic brake assist.”

A number of luxury vehicles already have this feature. It should be moving into higher volume, lower-priced vehicles in a few years.

So what about cost?

“Our philosophy is to provide the highest level of safety that is affordable,” Mr. Prasad says. “If you make safety unaffordable, you really haven't advanced safety … because people will keep on driving older cars, which don't have those features.

“People just will not buy.” Period.

The answer? Volume production.

“If we start going to higher and higher volumes by going into the less-expensive cars, the overall cost will come down,” Mr. Prasad says.

It happened with air bags. A pricey option when first introduced, they're not only standard equipment on the ’01 Taurus, they come complete with sensors that regulate deployment based on variables such as seat position and crash severity.

Meanwhile, MSRP for an ’01 Taurus SE is $19,225 — $850 less than the ’98 model that lacked the current air-bag system enhancements.

“We are not costing for it,” Mr. Prasad says.

But, he adds, “I'm not sure how long we can do that.”

Tell it to suppliers.

The development every year of new safety features — tire-pressure sensors, curtain air bags, trunk release levers, etc. — should herald the gravy train's arrival. But instead of riding first-class, suppliers are caught under the wheels.

Engineering, the ticket to innovation, isn't cheap. And for every product fast-tracked into assembly, dozens more are left at the station.

The situations at TRW Inc. and Autoliv Inc., two top safety system suppliers, are typical.

To cope with the current vehicle sales slump and resulting production cuts, TRW is laying off 1,000 workers at its automotive unit. Profits fell 63% in the last year. Coupled with profit margins that lag behind other sectors, it has considered exiting automotive entirely.

Meanwhile, Autoliv issued a warning in December that its earnings would be down and that raw material prices have been higher than anticipated. The company launched a record number of new programs last fall — which is good for new business but translates into higher production costs.

Nevertheless, consumer demand shows no sign of waning.

“The desire for safety features definitely has been growing and is continuing to grow,” says Rich Bongiorno, manager of J.D. Power's product research group.

A J.D. Power survey of more than 101,000 late-model vehicle owners reveals almost three out of four want side-impact air bags on their next car or truck.

Respondents also indicate a willingness to pay handsomely for safety. The top four features — antilock brakes, side-impact air bags, brake assist and stability control — have a combined median price tag of $1,150.

Says Doug Campbell, vice president of engineering for Occupant Safety Systems at TRW: “Safety has done a good job selling vehicles over the past 10 years, and there have been market share shifts because of it. I think safety will still be at the top of the mindset for the consumer base.”

The prevalence of reports on primetime news shows such as NBC's Dateline — with plenty of graphic crash test footage — has done plenty to sway public opinion.

Mr. Campbell, whose company is a top air bag and seat belt producer, says the curtain air bag (like that featured on our cover) got a huge boost on a recent report on side impacts. “All you have to do is see what the curtain bag does in a crash, and you'll say you want one of those,” he says.

Slam a pole into the side of a car at high speed, and you can't look away. Highway gawkers have proven that.

As the curtain goes up on curtain bags, “neighbors will talk about survivals, and I think it will be something people want,” Mr. Campbell says.

But want also can be dangerous.

Despite a steady diet of grim headlines, there is ample suggestion that car buyers maintain a healthy appetite for those amenities that might also compromise safety.

Echoing the mobile phone research distributed by NHTSA, the J.D. Power study says there exists “a long-term trend” for features that “allow better utilization of time spent on the road.” Most telling is the 19% of respondents who want an in-car PC in their next vehicle.

Says J.D. Power research associate Paul Rossi: “There are going to be people who want all of it.”

But at the extreme end of the infotainment scale, there is an inkling that car buyers prefer playthings such as CD players to the protection afforded by features such as antilock brakes. In an admittedly unscientific survey of visitors to his firm's Website, Alex Ho of Progressive Insurance notes a trend that suggests public crowing about safety features is just lipservice.

“People did put more of a priority on things like color, leather seating and CD players,” Mr. Ho says.

If intelligence is sometimes lacking behind the wheel, this might explain why manufacturers are putting “smart” components behind the dashboard.

“People are doing the weirdest things sitting in the vehicle,” says Derrick Zechmair, director of sales and marketing at Siemens Automotive.

“Some people rest their feet on the dashboard. Children are standing in front of the dashboard. … People are carrying suitcases. Holding a bouquet of flowers. People are sleeping.”

While they have been credited with saving more than 6,000 lives as of last year, NHTSA has also confirmed air bag deployment as the cause of nearly 200 deaths. Among them:

  • A two-year-old girl who was kneeling on the front passenger seat, wearing only the lap portion of a lap/shoulder belt;

  • An 11-year-old boy who was leaning forward to pick up a tissue prior to impact;

  • A seven-year-old, 57-lb (26-kg). boy who was wearing a lap/shoulder belt in the front passenger seat (proper restraint for a child this size is a child safety seat, secured in the rear of the vehicle).

Cases such as these have spawned the development of “smart” sensing systems that detect a passenger's weight and, if consistent with that of a child or small-statured adult, air bag deployment is altered.

But, says NHTSA: “The one fact that is common to all persons who die is not their height, weight, gender or age. Instead it's the fact that they were very close to an air bag.”

Hence the agency's requirement that, by 2004, the auto industry introduce advanced air bag technology. It must be brought forward from its current “passive” status to the preferred “active” variety of safety systems.

The difference? Passive systems deploy following an event. Active systems constantly monitor driving conditions and respond accordingly.

To help air bags make this leap, Siemens has developed an optical system that builds a 3D image of the occupant. Says Mr. Zechmair: “If you have a weight sensor, it gives you only feedback about weight. Nothing else.

“With this 3D camera, we want to create a three-dimensional image of this person. So every 30 to 50 milliseconds, we'll have a new three-dimensional image of the person.”

Based on the passenger's position at impact, air bag activation may be disabled, depowered, or it may deploy at full power. And if this sounds like coddling, consider these innovations:

  • New window glazing methods meant to prevent ejection of — presumably unbelted — occupants;

  • Specially designed cargo nets designed to reduce injury totals caused by flying objects — estimated to number at least 3,975 cases every year;

  • “Anti-pinch” technology for power windows.

Don't laugh. NHTSA has implemented standards for window closure safety, and Siemens has developed a system — also applicable to power doors such as minivan sliders — which has received independent certification.

The project is far from frivolous, says Allan Losey, manager of business development-body electronics, at Siemens.

“I don't know if my kid's still in the car or my dog's got his nose trapped,” he says, adding window motors have just enough horsepower to do serious harm, such as choking.

But such occurrences are rare, and sources estimate the cost of this feature could add $300 to a vehicle's MSRP.

To this, one insider says: “After the fact, you'd pay anything.”

Which prompts the question: Should manufacturers ever pay?

A Los Angeles jury thought so. In 1999, it awarded $4.9 billion to a family whose 1979 Chevy Malibu exploded in flames, leaving them with catastrophic injuries. The family's lawyers successfully argued GM knowingly had designed an unsafe gas tank. This despite the fact that their 14-year-old car was stopped and rear-ended at 70 mph (112 km/h) by a drunk driver.

A judge has since reduced the award to $1.2 billion, and it is currently on appeal.

And then there is the Firestone tire fiasco that is linked to more than 170 deaths, many of which involved Ford Explorers. Following a flurry of lawsuits that questioned the safety of its flagship SUV, the automaker announced it would load its ’02 Explorer with state-of-the-art safety gear. By fall of this year, in addition to features such as a “safety canopy” of air bags (retail price: $495) that deploy during rollovers, Explorer will boast:

  • Dual-stage air bags that work in concert with safety belt pretensioners;

  • AdvanceTrac electronic stability control that enhances vehicle maneuverability if the driver misjudges speed or road conditions while cornering;

  • A tire monitoring system that tracks pressure, temperature and speed — all of which can warn of impending failure.

Ford admits introduction of the latter feature was accelerated in the wake of the Firestone tire failures. But the company is resolute.

“The interest in safety is a lot higher, and we applaud that,” says Gurminder Bedi, Ford's vice president-North America truck, adding the automaker remains “really bullish on SUVs.

“The feeling of safety and security in an SUV is one of the reasons people buy an SUV,” Mr. Bedi says.

True enough. But there is also lingering doubt in the public's mind.

“I would say that the concerns over SUV safety issues, as well as general safety issues, continue to abound,” says Mr. Bongiorno. “It is ironic.”

While it has a chilling effect on the industry, litigation serves a vital role for consumers, says former National Transportation Safety Board chief James Hall.

“I think the litigation, obviously, is part of the formula,” says Mr. Hall, who now heads the Washington, DC, law office of Dillon, Hall and Lungershausen. Lawsuits, he explains, allow the harsh light of day to illuminate technology's darker side.

Meanwhile, Mr. Hall says the situation will get worse before it gets better. And he's not alone.

The character of America's highways is changing, Mr. Hall says, adding that 18-wheelers have created a new driving dynamic. “We now have more than 90,000 on the road. We've doubled the production of those trucks in the last 10 years, and we're going to double them again in the next 10.”

Mr. Edwards laments that so many motorists seem to have abdicated their responsibility.

“If you can't get people to change their behavior, then what can you do to improve safety? We're pretty much stuck where we are, in a way.

“It is a scary thing,” he says, adding that the auto industry is the last line of defense.

And despite the bleak prospects for making money on safety, the industry is in no position to back away from the challenge, Mr. Prasad says.

“Worldwide, if nothing is done, by the year 2020 motor vehicle injuries will be classified as the third-leading disease in the world. Currently, it is ninth.”

Back in the Okefenokee Swamp, where life is simpler, Pogo has another homespun observation that applies here: “We are confronted with insurmountable opportunities.”