- The Washington Times - Sunday, January 7, 2001

Air bags suffered another blow to their reputation as the cure-all safety device often portrayed by federal regulators when it was revealed on Wednesday that 500,000 General Motors vehicles were under investigation for defects that could result in the bags being torn open during inflation. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) is looking into complaints involving several types of GM minivans, including the Pontiac Aztek and Chevy Venture. A pillar-mounted door switch that operates the powered passenger-side sliding door appeared "capable of tearing the side air bag as it inflated from the seat back," according to NHTSA and Reuters. NHTSA estimated the problem could affect 490,000 vehicles.

This is but the most recent in an ongoing spate of technical problems with air bags which, as most people know, have killed nearly 200 people and injured thousands, some of them severely and permanently. No other government-mandated "safety" device has caused as much carnage as have air bags. Indeed, if one were to add up all fatalities attributed to known defects, such as the exploding gas tanks in early 1970s-era Ford Pintos, the total mayhem does not begin to approach the air bag body-count.

Why is this? Air bags are extremely complex devices; they employ sensors and myriad electrical subsystems. There are many variables that affect their performance beyond the merely technical such as location, deterioration factor (e.g., how well the components last over time) and other imponderables. Most of the problems that have resulted in fatalities and injuries were the result of these variables. Over time, as cars equipped with air bags age, so will the circuits, relays and switches that govern their operation. Just as power windows and cruise control sometimes don't work on older cars, air bags may not work or work improperly down the line. No one can foresee what will happen until it does.

Admittedly, air bags have saved thousands of lives. But they have also gotten many people killed. Given this mixed bag and the very strong likelihood that more problems will crop up as time goes by, perhaps car buyers should be given the choice not to have air bags at all, if they so wish. Surely, individuals have a stronger claim to making decisions that will potentially affect their future well-being than a faceless government bureaucracy such as NHTSA.


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