Airbags and Gasbags

Airbags aren't much of a risk--but it's one we should be free to choose.


If it saves one life, it's worth it" is the mantra of the modern-day regulatory safety maven. That's a powerful phrase, with resonance for anyone who values human life. It has proved an effective totem to keep cost-benefit analysis of safety regulations at bay.

The automobile airbag–a legally mandated safety device since 1991–demonstrably saves human lives. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration counts 1,136 saved by airbags from 1989 to 1995. The lives saved per year keeps rising as more and more people drive post-1991 cars.

But the airbag demonstrably ends human lives as well–disproportionately, the lives of children. Around 51 people are known to have been killed by airbags since 1990, about 31 of them children. As more people drive post-1991 vehicles, that grim toll is sure to rise. By the year 2000, Automotive News reports, we can expect one child a week to be killed by airbags.

The airbag is not a gentle pillow billowing from the dash to cradle a passenger to safety in horrific high-speed collisions. It's propelled at speeds of up to 200 mph. In typical circumstances, the bag merely bruises an adult, while keeping him from bashing against the dash or flying through the windshield. But an airbag sometimes activates in bumps at such usually less-than-fatal speeds of 10 mph or less. Most of those dead children were in minor accidents that hurt no one but that child.

The reason the airbag deploys with such force is telling: The government requires the bags to have enough force to protect someone not wearing a seat belt, who would presumedly be shot toward the dashboard at greater speed. To save the lives of people ignoring basic and universally known safety advice, the government mandated a system dangerous to innocent children whose parents didn't know–80 percent don't, according to a recent poll–that children under 12 should never be in the front seat of a car with airbags.

Now the government and the safety gasbags responsible for making one, society-wide cost-benefit analysis for everyone are admitting what they knew all along but wouldn't tell the rest of us: Airbags are not an unmitigated good. The dangers of airbags to children were brought up again and again by automakers as long ago as 1969. And in October 1991, NHTSA acknowledged at a meeting with auto execs that it was "aware of one-half dozen or so cases in which it is believed that the airbag caused…death"–even at crashes below 10 mph.

But according to a NHTSA memo reported in The Washington Post, NHTSA decided that announcing this "could cause a lot of harm to the public's positive perception [of] airbags." NHTSA waited until November 1995 to publicly acknowledge that airbags could kill as well as save.

REASON Science Correspondent Michael Fumento recently wrote a newspaper column on airbags, casting his usual jaundiced eye at risks hyped by an alarmist media. He explained, accurately, that despite the recent frightening newspaper anecdotes, airbags are much more likely to save someone than kill them–that the risk of being killed by an airbag is one of the tiniest an American child has to face.

But some children do die from the bags. And many parents have made the judgment that, however minuscule the risk may be, they ought to have more power to control it. They have attempted to get the airbags disabled or removed. The government at first prohibited that choice. In response to media furor, not any new data, regulators will now allow such deactivation at customers' requests–but, fearing lawsuits, many car dealers won't do it.

America's lawsuit mania stems from the same dangerous cultural quirk that demands regulatory safety measures at the expense of free choice and freely chosen risk. Propelling oneself around at high speeds in very heavy steel hulks with thousands of other unpredictable people doing the same all around you is inherently risky. Thousands of people die on the road every year, and for what? If saving one life is worth it, why drive? We drive because we value two things that regulatory mavens tend to discount: convenience and freedom. Convenience is not much at stake in the airbag controversy. But freedom is.

The risk represented by airbags is certainly very small. But each individual should be able to choose how to judge that risk–not have it decided for them by a government that responds more to media fashion than to science and is happy to hide inconvenient facts to protect its agenda. Government regulators have punted on their main obligation–to be honest and accurate about risks. Now that airbag glasnost is leaking through, no new regulations should be promulgated. Car buyers and car makers, between themselves, should be able to make their own relevant cost-benefit choices.

Deaths from airbags are few. But even one death caused by government dictating what risks we can take is too many.