All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1990

Air BagsMore Government Hot Air?

Mr. Young, a regular contributor to Automobile Quarterly, has written extensively on the automotive industry.

The automobile today is as much a product of government regulation as of corporate design and innovation. For decades automobile manufacturers designed and built cars without government intrusion. That ended in the 1960s. The automobile suddenly became the focus of environmental activists and safety advocates. The number of regulations affecting cars in the late 60s amounted to only a trickle at first, but quickly reached storm surge proportions in the 1970s.

Manufacturers were forced to redirect much of their design and engineering manpower to the new wave of regulations. New words and phrases entered the automotive lexicon: emissions, impact absorbing bumpers, crash-worthiness, rollover standards, passive restraints.

The last of these—passive restraints—proved the most abhorrent to the manufacturers, and the companies worked tirelessly to prevent such legislation from being passed. The car makers argued that such devices were complex, very costly, and embraced unproven technology. Some cautioned that in certain circumstances air bags, as they came to be known, might even be dangerous. There was also the fear of product liability lawsuits in the rare instances where the air bags failed to inflate.

The insurance industry lobbied for implementation of passive restraints, stating air bags would save lives and reduce injuries; air bags would also save the insurance companies millions of dollars in claims.

The debate raged for years. Seat belt interlocks were tried in the 1970s, forcing drivers to buckle up before their cars would start. But owners found ways of getting around this, and the idea was scrapped. In fact, Americans never have been great believers in the use of seat belts. Despite the life-saving and injury-preventing qualities of lap and shoulder belts, roughly half of all drivers eschew them, even with mandatory seat-belt laws in most states. The air bag, and in some instances, automatic seat belts that wrap around the driver when the car door is closed, circumvent the recalcitrant nature of the American driving public. The government says, in effect, “Since you refuse to exercise good, common sense by wearing a seat belt, the U.S. government has decided to protect you from yourself.” And you must pay for it.

For those who refuse to buckle up, there are air bags. And drivers equipped with air bags will be the first to extoll the virtues of the device after surviving a head-on collision. Unfortunately, the other 50 percent of drivers who wear lap and shoulder belts are now forced to pay for a redundant and. costly passive restraint starting with the 1990 model year. However, air bags are not yet required in every vehicle the manufacturer makes. Consequently, some new-car buyers, having worn lap and shoulder belts for years, are balking at new air bag-equipped cars and are selectively shopping for new vehicles without air bags.

Clearly, most car manufacturers wouldn’t install air bags if not required by law. However, some companies with a tradition of safety, such as Volvo, have installed air bags for a number of years. Air bags, nevertheless, have their limitations. They are effective only in head-on or front-oblique collisions. Lap and shoulder belts provide protection in many other accidents, including side impact, multiple impact, and rollover. Aware of the limitations of air bags, manufacturers continue to install inertia reel lap and shoulder belts in their air bag-fitted cars. Ads for the Lexus ES250 show a driver-side air bag supplemental restraint system inflated with a lap and shoulder belt buckled around an anatomical dummy.

Despite the obvious facts in the air bag versus seat belt debate, safety advocates have turned a deaf ear. They now seek to expand the regulations to include trucks, vans, and other vehicles. Thus, expensive passive restraints will be installed in millions of vehicles when fewer than one percent will be involved in accidents requiting them.

The air bag is yet another example of government trying to improve the automobile for society. As is so often the case, once government gets involved in the regulation of a product, light is never seen at the end of the tunnel. There is never a stated, final goal; there is only an ongoing effort of “improvement.” Government regulation of the automobile has taken on a life of its own, the most notable result being a much more expensive product.