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October 31, 1996
Air bags were one of my first issues when I began working in public interest law twenty years ago. I had just started as an attorney with Pacific Legal Foundation. The U.S. Department of Transportation, under the newly elected Carter Administration, shelved a massive demonstration program for passive restraints (that is, air bags and automatic seat belts), and instead mandated the devices.
We sued. We argued that DOT was arbitrarily mandating passive restraints without extensive field testing; that air bags posed significant risks of their own; and that the mandate was a violation of privacy rights. We lost.
Several years later the Reagan Administration tried to rescind the passive restraint mandate. The insurance industry successfully sued to keep the mandate in force. In 1983, shortly after the Supreme Court ruled against the rescission, I argued in a Wall St. Journal op-ed that the Administration's major mistake had been to accept "the conventional wisdom that air bags have been proven in the real world."
These days the newspapers are filled with stories of air bags killing children and small or elderly adults. Joan Claybrook and Company claim the auto industry knew of this threat for decades and did nothing. But it was Joan Claybrook herself who, as Administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency under Carter, was a prime mover behind the passive restraint mandate. Among her lesser known actions was suppressing a cadaver test study that indicated that air bags caused greater injury than seat belts, and harassing the researcher who wrote the study.
At the same time, a NHTSA brochure blandly debunked the notion "that not enough is known about these systems". The air bag, it explained, simply inflates, protects, and begins deflating in the blink of an eye. "Basically, that is all there is to the air cushion and how it works. Not all that complicated, is it?", it stated reassuringly.
Air bags do save lives on balance, but significantly fewer lives than NHTSA predicted and with risks that are far greater than the agency acknowledged back then.
In coming months, the auto industry will come under increasing fire for having supposedly failed to "warn" us about the hazards of air bags, with Claybrook & Co. only adding to the heat.
Not all that complicated, is it?
--Sam Kazman, CEI General Counsel