Reader Dan Garrett passes along news of one of the dumbest and most counterproductive recalls in recent memory, this one involving Toyota, a car company especially known for the wanton disregard of human life, especially if we're talking about kids young enough that they are still being strapped into car seats (after all, there's a good chance such brats might end up buying Nissans or revitalizing the moribund Daewoo market, right?).
There seems to be little question that Toyota screwed up in not following regs that became operative in 2002, but those regs themselves are worth questioning. The recall affects 160,000 Tundra pickups and is set to begin this fall. It turns out that Toyota installed an on-off switch for the passenger-side airbag, which would allow drivers to place child seats there (the bench-style backseats of most pickups, apparently the Tundra included, are often too narrow to do so easily) without having to worry about their kids getting crushed by an inflating airbag. Generally speaking, there's a safety risk to kids and small adult passengers from having an airbag–the force of inflation might inflict more damage than that likely be sustained in a crash (assuming in both cases, of course, that the passengers are using seat belts and/or kid's seat harnesses). This risk is very small but it's one that some people don't want to take. So by putting an on-off switch on the passenger side airbag, Toyota made its truck more flexible and no less safe (since parents could still use that airbag (or not) and/or install a car seat).
But the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) says Toyota has run afoul of regs requiring that all front seats with passenger-side airbags also include a child-seat anchor system known as LATCH, which allows for easier attachment of kid's seats (though you can still attach the seats fully and safely without LATCH).
Given the problem–which Toyota itself realized after the fact and told NHTSA about–the car company now has to figure out a cost-effective way to fix the problem. The NHTSA-approved way will also be the cheapest: Disable the passenger-side on-off airbag switch, so the airbag is always on. So that means that passengers driving in the passenger seat will not have the option of using an airbag.[*]
Full story from CNNMoney, subtitled "Why would Toyota issue a recall designed to make vehicles less safe?,"
Back in 1997, Brian Doherty argued that airbags save lives but the choice to use one should be just that, a choice.
[*]: Corrected thanks to readers Mike and Evan! below.
And while I'm making a correction, I should note that Reason's Kerry Howley blogged this story only yesterday and linked to a classic Toyota urban legend to boot.