As of last year, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) identified 32 instances of auto air bags that deploy at 200 miles per hour, killing children and another 20 cases killing adults. Since the late sixties, the auto industry has warned NHTSA about air bag dangers. According to a story in "Consumer Research" (January 1997), in 1969 General Motors warned that "a small child close to the instrument panel from which the air cushion is deployed may be severely injured or even killed." In 1971, Chrysler's president said the air bag is "potentially hazardous for an out-of-position adult or small child." Tests conducted in 1974 by Volvo showed out-of-position children could be killed or seriously injured by air bags. Volvo's test used baby pigs and only three out of 24 test pigs survived. Finally, a 1990 GM test on dummies found that air bags caused severe-to-fatal injuries if a person was resting on the steering wheel when the bag deployed.
Government agencies that forced auto manufacturers to equip vehicles with air bags knowingly ignored these reports. NHTSA said air bags produced "no significant air bag injuries to improperly positioned occupants." In 1977 the Transportation Department lied when it claimed that air bags "protect automobile occupants from collision injuries automatically, without the need to fasten belts or take any other action." Joan Claybrook, the head of NHTSA in 1979, followed up that lie saying "it was possible to design air bags that will meet the performance criteria and will provide a high level of protection for children whether they are seated properly or not." GM wanted to delay the introduction of air bags out of safety concerns. Claybrook saw those concerns as auto company safety obstructionism. As it turns out, air bags provide only a very small increase in safety over the wearing of seatbelts. However, in some low speed crashes, air bags caused occupant injuries that would not have otherwise occurred.
The real debate over the air bag controversy shouldn't focus on the safety issue. Instead, it should focus on Washington's arrogant elite who think they are wiser than everybody else and have been ordained to forcibly impose their "wisdom" on the rest of us whether we like it or not. These people, in pursuit of their overall agenda to control us, knowingly concealed questions about safety in their effort to convince us that air bags are the best thing since sliced bread. Their lying and manipulation hasn't stopped. In 1995, NHTSA head Ricardo Martinez said, "The safety agency is aware of no air bag-induced injuries to infants." Almost a year earlier a 3-month-old infant suffered a skull fracture when an air bag hit the infant's rear-facing car seat. In 1993, the auto industry wanted the NHTSA to allow them to place a strongly worded warning label in air bag equipped cars. Following the urging of Claybrook's Advocate's for Highway Safety, NHTSA ordered a less strongly worded label. Claybrook felt that a strongly worded label might cause small female drivers to sit too far back from the steering wheel. Spineless auto executives, perhaps fearful of government retaliation, should be ashamed for their complicity in not making motorists aware of air bag dangers.
What should Americans demand of Congress? I think Congress should repeal all air bag laws. Such a repeal wouldn't prevent anyone who wanted air bags from having them as optional equipment. It would seem that in a free society people have the right to choose safety tradeoffs for themselves and have the responsibility of living with whatever safety tradeoff they make.
Walter E. Williams
February 2, 1997
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