They held it in a vast warehouse room with steel girders on the ceiling, rent-a-carpets on the floor and four hundred clear-eyed technocrats mounted on folding chairs; stick figures composing a symmetrical checkerboard audience, each of whom has found a plausible, mathematically provable position on the upward side of the great bell-curve of life. The subject, as is so often the case when benevolent governments convene with concerned industries, was how to save us clumsy but lovable citizen-drones from ourselves.
Douglas Toms, personifying folksy, candid men of government, stood up before the gathering and said in his best honest-injun, Oregon schoolboy twang, that, in effect, it was his sacred duty, as Director of the National Highway Safety Bureau, to help save American lives on the road, regardless of whether the poor dolts want his help or not. Seat belt usage is plummeting, he reported, while trying to register gravity on his flushed, "Gee dad, it's a Winchester" countenance and pronounced resolutely, "Our first priority is to save lives." That priority would be met most effectively, he added, by the universal application of passive restraints—air bags—to all passenger-carrying motor vehicles.
Toms had come to the lectern as the hard-line handmaiden of the Honorable John A. Volpe, Secretary of Transport of the United States of America and the most zealous advocate of equipping automobiles with air bag systems that would automatically inflate in the event of collision, thereby turning thousands of auto crashes into nothing more than lethal pillow fights. Volpe came to the conference early and left early, pleading that he had to return to Washington in the press of greater business. He punched out his carefully prepared speech, cocky and civet-eyed, in harsh, down-east accents, stating that it was his intent to turn the motor vehicle into a "protective shield" for its passengers. Hunching earnestly toward his audience, he denounced the automobile as "a public health menace," then flirted with the abstract by asking, "Who is to say that among the young who have died in auto crashes was not a future Washington or Michelangelo?"
This terrible consumption of life via car crashes demands severe measures on the part of the government and the builders, the Honorable Secretary said, and this leaves no choice but to employ air bags on all cars by 1973. His original schedule had called for a time limit of 1972 (even though the D.O.T.'s own air bag tests are scheduled to run through 1976, with results in 1977), but complaints from the industry about the impossibility of meeting such a deadline had prompted him to add 12 months to the schedule a mere two days prior to the speech. But he remained unswerving in his conviction that this concession would be the last and left the room after imploring his audience to "Let's get the bugs out of the bags." Then he was gone, sweeping out of the room behind fluttering applause from the industry-dominated crowd. At least he had come. The other government headliner, flunky administration liberal Daniel P. Moynihan, hadn't bothered to show up, letting Toms make particularly feeble apologies for him based on the fact that Moynihan couldn't find a satisfactory plane flight to get him there. Maybe "benign neglect" will work with auto safety too.
So, as the Honorable Secretary of Transport zoomed back to Washington, safely above the death-infested highways, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization International Conference on Passive Restraints got underway in the cavernous Safety Research and Development building at General Motors Proving Ground—a structure known to some who recall GM's frantic scramble to get into the safety biz, as "The House that Nader Built." But what about NATO sponsoring a safety conference? What have passive restraints got to do with the ninety billion Red-Horde Commie armored divisions who may try to capture Andorra? Isn't NATO a military alliance? Primarily yes, but in a Parkinsonian thrust for life in the face of obsolescence, NATO has cast its lot with peace! Wow. Swords into plowshares! Anyway, member nations are now grappling with common social problems, and the United States has been selected to lead the way in three areas: auto safety, disaster relief and air pollution. Therefore, in company with the Big Four auto manufacturers, the U.S. Government hosted this conference on passive restraints.
It was, in fact, a GM show. There were strong, but unconfirmed rumors that Ford was sore about the fact that GM and the government were getting all the headlines, and whether this was true or not, it played a minor role in the proceedings. Company strong man Lee Iacocca, sporting an enigmatic leer throughout the Honorable John A. Volpe's address, departed shortly thereafter, leaving his Body Engineering Chief, Stuart Frey, to say what Ford had to say about passive restraints in an airy little recitation titled "History of Air Bag Development." This was long on chronology, and clearly intended to tell the world that Ford had been into air bag development for about as long as the idea has been kicking around. But in there with the history, in the same dry, engineer's drone, were a few items of general information worth considering. Not the least of these was the news that if the air bag is arranged to burst right straight out of the instrument panel, it will deliver a punch "in the fatal range" for a child standing with his face close to the area of bag deployment. If, on the other hand, deployment is directed laterally, the force of opening caused "major deformation of the instrument panel (even) to the extent of breaking the windshield." In a multiple-impact collision, the air bag would thus set you up with structure stripped bare of padding, and broken chunks of glass to cushion the second jolt.
Frey also stressed that these difficulties exist with only a single air bag, for the front-seat passenger, and in anticipation that a lap belt would also be used to prevent ejection from the car. Ford also considers the belt to be essential for protection in high-speed crashes, when the air bag may not inflate in time. Finally, Frey pointed out that another Federal agency, the FDA, will not consider approving a new drug—however promising—until after extensive laboratory and field testing has shown it to be free of adverse side effects. And you would have to say that there are some highly disturbing side effects with air bags at the present state of the art.
Ford's presentation being concluded, representatives from the Little Two of the Big Four, Chrysler and American Motors, stepped to the podium to say their piece. But they hadn't much more to offer, each taking a half-hour to outline developments their organizations had made in the field, and then retiring to let the big boys into the center ring.
The rewards the government and General Motors were seeking from the conference were obviously opposed. The Honorable Secretary and his minion apparently expected a vast body of knowledge to well forth from the numerous, publicity hungry manufacturers, all of which would support their position that air bags would be Everyman's salvation. General Motors, on the other hand, was acting as the tacit spokesman for the world body of auto-makers by using the conference to tell the government and the public that, under present technology, air bags are not perfected.
Rolling out heavy artillery in the form of corporation president Edward Cole, who was on hand for much of the two-day session, General Motors stated flatly that they could not produce a reliable, fail-safe air bag device within the time limit set by the government. "I hope the bags can go on schedule," said Cole in those strong, lucent tones that rumble out of the throats of all tough, confident business leaders, "but…" That qualifier opened the dam for a flash flood of statistics designed to sweep the Honorable Secretary, Mr. Toms and their air bags back to Washington. Out came the movies and film strip projectors and a string of technocrats armed with enough subliminally negative graphs and bell curves to stuff a Univac.
They droned out this message: While a helluv an idea, air bags are not ready for use by the general public because of some serious technical problems. For example, an air bag is supposed to pop up in your face a few milliseconds after your car hits something, stay inflated for a few more milliseconds to absorb the kinetic energy in your flying body, then collapse after saving your life. This will work, according to the government, in crash impacts equal to driving a vehicle into a solid barrier at 30 miles an hour. Beautiful! Twenty-five thousand lives saved each year with air bags, claims the Honorable Secretary. Only another dark conspiracy by the auto cartels and the ghoulish, profit-hungry tycoons prevent this mechanism from being installed on all cars today screech the consumer paranoids. But what about the actual deployment of the bag? After the Honorable Secretary has drained the idea of its political reward and the Consumer's Union has again maundered in its pablum about how air bags are being kept from a yearning populace by the homicidal fiends in Detroit, it will be up to the scrubbed legions of brush cut engineers in white shirts and skinny ties, with packs of sharpened pencils and six-inch steel rulers in their breast pockets, to solve the problem—to make the air bag work, so that when mom and pop and the kids skid their bald tires on the pavement and thump something, the bags will pop and save them, every time.
To do this, the bags need a sensing unit mounted somewhere in the automobile. This sensor must be able to determine when the car hits something harder than a curbstone or the back of the garage and trigger the deployment of the air bags. A gas cylinder then pops its bung and fills the bag, or bags, in the passenger compartment. This must happen in about 60 milliseconds—60 thousandths of a second—in order for the bags to fill up before the people collide with the dashboard, windshield, etc. This time limit means the bags have to be filled up in fairly rapid fashion—ergo, these soft vinyl pillow cases come at you at about 500 miles an hour. "Like getting hit in the face with a wet towel," said one Government type, soothingly. Such an impact might be nothing to Joe Frazier or Dick Butkus, but what about a frail old grandma and her dainty rimless bi-focals, or pop, who makes it through the crash, but now smokes his Prince Albert through a hole in the back of his head?
Then the engineers have to reduce the noise and the concussion. In the event you crave a home demonstration of exactly how an air bag going off will sound, it is recommended that you purchase a cherry bomb and ignite it in the front seat of your car—with the windows up. While air bag devotees swear the resultant trauma will be temporary and that your hearing will not be permanently damaged, you will find the experience something akin to standing under a tree while it is struck by a bolt of lightning. In an automobile equipped with air bags in the front and rear seats, with four adults on board, the concussion and the inflation of the bags will displace so much air that the windows will be blown out and, on smaller cars, the doors buckled! What's more, there exist the virtually unsolved problems of side crashes, rollovers and multiple impact collisions, wherein the bags will inflate and deflate long before the car comes to rest.
Add to this the specter of accidental inflation, and the gap between the Honorable Secretary and the scrubbed men with the lead pencils reaches near-unbridgeable dimensions. Again, acting as a spokesman for the industry, a General Motors statistical expert stood up and trudged through a deadly, detailed discourse on reliability, logically hammering home the point that it is impossible, on the basis of mathematical probability, to prove 100% reliability in anything, including the prevention of accidental deployment of air bags. His projection indicated that something like 1000 of the approximately 4-million motor vehicles produced annually by GM—if equipped with air bags—would accidentally deploy. Although unsaid, his lecture left one with the picture of a car bustling along a crowded freeway at 70 mph when the bags go off, sending it lashing out of control and causing a multi-car pileup.
Now the group-thinkers have an answer for that, and it is embroiled in the jargonese of "payoffs" and "tradeouts." As one of the benevolent technocrats put it, "We may lose a few due to inadvertent deployment, but in terms of the ones we will save, they'll be insignificant." As long as the unlucky "ones" are somebody else's, that argument will stand up. But, only with thinkers who reach conclusions on the basis of probabilities, bar graphs, computations and mad, Orwellian phrase-frippery such as "maximizing the variables," can cynical "tradeouts" in terms of accidental deaths to prevent additional accidental deaths make sense. In war, where the consumption of lives is a foregone conclusion, this sort of nightmare thinking has a macabre kind of logic about it, but in peaceful endeavor the idea of consuming lives to save lives borders on madness.
Within the concept of auto safety, the requirement that an automobile be equipped with seat belts, strong chasis, safe interiors, good brakes, tires, suspensions, etc. is both right and necessary because these devices offer the driver and his passengers the option of using them and may very well prevent injury to others outside the automobile. With an air bag—which is the absolute antithesis of a "passive device—there is no such option, and until it can be made utterly, completely, totally, absolutely fail-safe, no government has the moral right to force its citizens to measure their individual safety in terms of "tradeouts" and "payoffs." A seat belt cannot hurt you. An air bag can.
"We know that seat belts, shoulder harnesses and roll cages do the best job in saving lives," Toms has said. "But people don't use them so we'll make them utilize air bags." There is at present no known accident under 60 mph in which occupants using belts and harnesses have been killed. It seems, therefore, that if one desires to survive in an automobile, he has the means to preserve his life.
It becomes not a question of technology, but a question of philosophy relating to the sovereignty of the individual. Before a final decision is made about air bags, let the Honorable Secretary gather together a group of academicians, writers, philosophers, and political activists to discuss the following question: "Presuming that a vast majority of people drive or ride in automobiles as a voluntary act involving what they believe to be an acceptable risk, what are the limits of responsibility for a government and the manufacturers in preserving life and health?"
The conference will never be convened, so let the words of John Stuart Mill stand: "The sole end for which mankind is warranted, individually or collectively, in interfering with the liberty of action of any of their number, is self-protection. That the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others. His own good, either moral or physical, is not a sufficient warrant."
Brock Yates is Senior Editor of CAR AND DRIVER. His article "Is Inflation Good For You?" originally appeared in that magazine and is reprinted here by permission.