Airbags and the mandate: Can we please have some restraint?
Airbags have been part of the automotive and legislative lexicon for more than a quarter century. And while not a big fan of an explosive device sitting but a few inches from my face, I have (begrudgingly) recognized their importance to both the public at large and legislative bodies; all have felt, over the last several decades, the very real need to stem the rising tide of vehicular homicides and injuries. To that end, when the airbag began making its presence in any and all motor vehicles by governmental mandate I did the same thing I did fifteen years earlier with the installation of government-imposed ‘safety’ bumpers: sighed audibly, rolled the eyes and counted to ten. Or ten thousand…
That, of course, was then; now we have an airbag-fueled brouhaha involving several OEMs and one Japanese maker of airbag mechanisms, Takata. The issue involves defective inflator and propellent devices that may – you guessed it – deploy improperly in the event of a crash. The result of same is metal fragments propelled into vehicle occupants. That, of course, if fine if you’re covered in body armor while on patrol in Afghanistan; less so if you’re simply taking the Civic to the 7-11. Initially thought to be an issue only in those areas of the U.S. with high humidity (like my shower?), it has since spread to a wider geographic database and literally millions of vehicle owners.
Now, I would not sit here suggesting that in light of this debacle we eliminate any and all airbags/side airbags/knee airbags from passenger automobiles and trucks. I would ask, however, for the installation of a delete option on new vehicle purchases. As an operator of both motorcycles and bicycles without the supplemental ‘safety’ offered by airbags, I know I can pilot a car or truck with a reasonable degree of safety and security, even in the absence of a modern airbag. And I’d enjoy the assurance of not losing an ear, eye, nose or throat to an exploding device at a less-than-ideal time – which is just about any time.
If that suggestion weren’t viable, let me argue for a smaller airbag, which – at one time – was the standard in Europe. There, the bags could be smaller because they were designed to work with a restrained driver; that’s something our larger bags haven’t been. With a smaller bag, and correspondingly smaller explosion, you might only lose part of an ear – and not the whole now-bloody thing! May piece be with you…and not in the headliner.
Airbags: Save the baby
When airbags were first proposed for automotive use, they were called “passive restraint devices.” They were intended, quite naively, to replace seatbelts, with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety claiming that the added cost of airbags would be offset by the removal of seatbelts from cars.
But while the effectiveness of airbags as a device was being debated, government requirements for passive restraints were put in place, with the response from automakers being silly seatbelts that decreased the safety of those who used them while not improving that for those who refused to wear them. Then somewhere along the line, reason prevailed and “passive restraints” became “supplemental restraint systems.”
The benefits of airbags in cars are clear. They cushion those in cars from hitting hard objects in the car or, as in the case of side airbags, are designed to push occupants away from the inside of the car when it’s collapsing inward from a side impact. Seatbelts are the first line of defense, of course, for what should be obvious reasons by now, but they also help by positioning the passenger for optimum effectiveness.
But because of the time frame involved in getting the airbag in between the passenger and the hard surfaces of the interior, the airbags are literally explosive, and the term “cushion” in only relative. An airbag deploys with the subtlety of a 12-guage shotgun. Drivers with arms draped lazily across the top of the steering wheel, or passengers with their feet on the dashboard are putting themselves at risk of bad to unimaginably severe injuries when the airbag goes off in an accident. Anyone who thinks they’ll have time to prepare for an imminent collision hasn’t been in one…and even profession race drivers have accidents, sometimes even their own fault. No one is perfect, and everyone rides with a passenger sooner or later.
Of course, seatbelts are more effective than airbags. That’s why there aren’t airbags in race cars. But race car drivers are strapped in in ways that everyday drivers and passengers would never tolerate. Further, if you don’t need airbags because you’re a highly skilled driver, you don’t need seatbelts for safety either.
There’s a libertarian argument against government mandating airbag installation on automobiles. People should be allowed to make their own bad choices. However, expanding the concept helmet laws for motorcyclists or mandatory immunizations of children, allowing car buyers to opt out of airbag installation will certainly result in more injuries and fatalities. even if not for the highly skilled first owner then the second owner.
The Takata airbag travesty is another matter. This was not a matter of a dangerous concept—mistakes are made in engineering because, well, people—but rather the result of not taking action to correct the problem once identified. General Motors at least changed the design of the ignition switch when a potential problem was noticed, even if it didn’t recall the existing problematical switches for replacement. The bigger fault was in covering up and continuing to produce the defective airbags. Do we allow an optional delete for ignition switches?
Allowing optional delete of airbags based on Takata’s continued supply of defective product throwing is the baby out with the bathwater.