- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 16, 2000

Just as some old junkers are beyond fixing and ought to be scrapped, so the federal air bag mandate is beyond repair and should be dumped. Instead, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) the federal regulatory agency which administers the "passive restraint" air bag rule is attempting, again, to "fix" a flawed policy that has already cost 158 people their lives. And the fix, which will add a new layer of technical complexity to devices that have already demonstrated themselves to be a mixed blessing at best, will almost certainly put more people in their graves.

The new regulations announced last week by NHTSA will require "smart" air bags that use sensors and other elaborate technologies to adjust air bag deployment speeds, theoretically reducing the danger to women, children and other small-statured people. It is a hypothetical reduction, however, because little real-world testing has been done. No one really knows what will happen over time, under actual driving conditions, over the 8-12 year lifespan of the average vehicle. So the putative "lives saved" business being peddled by NHTSA is just an educated guess.

One significant problem with NHTSA's educated guess about the benefits of "smart" air bags is that it does not take into account the "degradation factor" of the sensors, switches and relays over time. Five or 10 years down the road, a corroded circuit or failed sensor could cause an inadvertent deployment, a full-force deployment or no deployment at all. No one really knows. Incredibly, NHTSA openly concedes this point, stating, "To the extent that these systems are not as reliable as assumed, children and small adults would continue to be at risk."

We consumers get to pay for the ongoing risk, of course. And not just in terms of blood. Smart air bag technology will add at least $125 per vehicle to the cost of a new car some $2 billion annually. This is above and beyond what air bags already cost us. Dual (driver and front-seat passenger) air bags, required by federal law since the mid-1990s, have added about $500-$800 to the bottom line of a new car an amount equivalent to a major option such as air conditioning or an electric sunroof, neither of which, by the way, has ever killed anyone.

New testing requirements will be added to the rigmarole as well; the automakers will have to test their new air bag designs using crash-test dummies of five different sizes, ranging from an infant to an adult male. Someone's going to pay for all of that, too. You can bet it won't be the automakers who will inevitably pass the cost on to buyers.

Given NHTSA's previous, laughably low estimate of the cost of air bag on-off switches, it is reasonable to assume that the new smart air bags plus the cost of the new testing requirements will actually come closer to $300 or $400 per car rather than the $125 the agency is suggesting in its press releases.

Thus, automobile consumers are to be compelled to pay nearly $1,000 for dubious "safety" technology all because NHTSA has invested so much of its prestige in the efficacy of the devices that to admit it may have made a mistake would be hugely embarrassing. Will it take another 158 bodies to get NHTSA to change its mind?

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