Air Bag Safety Coverup

by | Apr 28, 1997

Last February, I wrote about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) air bag safety coverup and the 52 lives (32 were children) lost caused by 200 mph deploying air bags. Then there were air bag lies. In 1977, the Transportation Department claimed that air bags “protect automobile occupants from collision injuries, without the need […]

Last February, I wrote about the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s (NHTSA) air bag safety coverup and the 52 lives (32 were children) lost caused by 200 mph deploying air bags. Then there were air bag lies. In 1977, the Transportation Department claimed that air bags “protect automobile occupants from collision injuries, without the need to fasten seatbelts or take any other action.” The 1979 head of the NHTSA, Joan Claybrook said, “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.” I ended the column suggesting that Americans ought to be free to choose to have air bags or not. After all the additional safety benefit air bags provide, for seatbelt wearing passengers, is virtually zero.

Acting under the assumption of being an emancipated adult, living in a free country, I wrote the following letter to Mr. John Womack, Acting Chief Counsel of the U.S. Department of Transportation: “Dear Mr. Womack: I am very concerned for my safety in light of a number of recent reports about air bags going off and killing people. I herein request permission to have the air bag in my car deactivated. Thank you for your assistance.”

More than a month later, I received an answer from Mr. James R. Hackney, Director of the Office of Crashworthiness Standards that in part read: “In your letter, you request approval to disconnect one or both of the air bags in your vehicle. I regret to inform you that, at this time, we cannot grant your request to authorize your auto dealer or repair shop to disconnect your air bags.” Then he went on to talk about NHTSA plans to mandate “smart air bags” in 1999 “. . . that will stop air bags from deploying under unsafe conditions or effectively tailor the speed of the deployment to match the size of the occupant and the crash circumstances.”

How do you like that for elitist bureaucratic arrogance? Mr. Hackney implicitly concedes there’s a safety issue with air bags deploying “under unsafe conditions” and deployment speed not matching occupant size and crash circumstances. But more importantly, who in the world does he think he is to tell me that he’s not granting me permission to take a measure that might save my life. Moreover, I’d like to know what specific article in the U.S. Constitution authorizes the NHTSA to command Americans to suffer the indignities of paternalism and the additional risks of air bags. Or, does the NHTSA share my mother’s attitude when I was a child – “there’s no constitution in this house; you do what I say!”

Whether air bags are safe or unsafe is not the real issue. The real issue is whether Americans shall be free to choose. The elitist arrogance, demonstrated by the NHTSA’s letter, is a direct result of an American general willingness to sacrifice liberty for safety. The elitist response to calls for liberty might be, “Williams, if you don’t have an air bag in your car, or wear a seatbelt, you might become a burden on society if you’re injured and can’t take care of yourself.” That’s not a problem of liberty; it’s a problem of socialism. In a free society another can’t be compelled to take care of me for any reason. Under socialism, you are compelled to take care of me, and like my mother, you have the right to control my life. As for me, I’ll take liberty over nannyism.

Walter Williams (March 31, 1936 – December 1, 2020) was an American economist, commentator, academic, and columnist at Capitalism Magazine. He was the John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics at George Mason University, and a syndicated editorialist for Creator's Syndicate. He is author of Race and Economics: How Much Can Be Blamed on Discrimination?, and numerous other works.

The views expressed above represent those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors and publishers of Capitalism Magazine. Capitalism Magazine sometimes publishes articles we disagree with because we think the article provides information, or a contrasting point of view, that may be of value to our readers.

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