Airbags Have Saved Tens of Thousands of Americans… and Industry Obstruction Cost Three Times As Many

Currently, the total number of vehicles with potentially defective airbags that have been recalled has expanded to nearly 34 million – or about 18 percent of the more than 183 million cars on the road. So far, 8 deaths and over 100 serious injuries have been reported from defective air bags. For those who have lost loved ones, allowing these defective products on the market has been an outrage and a tragedy.  The managers at the Takata Corporation should be held accountable for failing to immediately recall these products when they learned they were dangerous. We assume that government will play this role.

But in the midst of the discussion about how this safety mechanism could become deadly, we should also focus the life-saving benefits of air bags and the history their use in motor vehicles.

Industry delayed the introduction of airbags for 20 years.

From 1997, when inflatable frontal airbags were required to be in place in every new vehicle, through 2012 (the most recent year data was available), airbags are estimated to have saved the lives of almost 28,000 people.

But the history of industry opposition and inaction on “passive restraints” - the technical term for vehicle safety equipment such as airbags - goes back almost 45 years. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) first issued a rule requiring airbags in new cars in November 1970 – and gave the car companies until 1974 to install them.

Ford immediately petitioned NHSTA to delay the airbag requirement. It proposed the substitution of a system linking seatbelt locks to a car's ignition system (i.e., a car’s ignition wouldn’t start unless the seatbelt was locked), a less protective but cheaper approach. Ford and all other major auto manufacturers except General Motors then sued NHTSA in 1971 to allow use of the seatbelt interlock approach. (GM had committed in early 1970 to install airbags in one million 1974 model year cars, but they were ultimately offered as optional equipment in just 10,000 cars from 1974–1976 and then dropped due to lack of consumer interest.)

Following a 1971 meeting between Ford senior executives and President Richard Nixon, the DOT delayed the airbag standard until 1977; the ignition seatbelt interlock system was the interim alternative safety mechanism. Following continued pressure from the auto companies, Congress revoked ignition seatbelt interlock requirements in 1974.

In 1977, the Carter administration DOT required airbags or automatic seatbelts to be to be phased in, starting in 1981 and to be installed in every new car by 1984. The auto industry sued DOT over the new rule, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit upheld the standard in 1979.

Undaunted, the auto industry prevailed on the Reagan administration in 1981 to delay implementation of the rule for one year, just as the requirement was scheduled to take effect. GM cited the “immediate need to avoid the sharp economic impediment that these requirements…would place on the domestic car market’s recovery.”

Soon after, NHTSA completely rescinded the rule. Public interest organizations and insurance companies then sued NHTSA in a case that went all the way the U.S. Supreme Court. The Supreme Court told NHTSA in a 9-0 decision to either provide a better justification for its action in rescinding the rule or re-establish it. The Court noted, “For nearly a decade, the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost – the inflatable restraint was proven sufficiently effective.”

NHTSA finally reissued the airbag requirement in 1984 but delayed full compliance until 1990 model-year cars. It delayed the passenger-side airbag requirement until the 1993 model year because of industry lobbying.

In an effort to further undermine the standard, then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole promised to cancel the requirement if two-thirds of the public were covered by mandatory seatbelt laws. That effort failed after insurance and consumer groups lobbied state legislatures to enact laws to prevent cancellation of the airbag standard. Still, airbags weren’t offered in 100 percent of new cars until the 1997 model year.

The auto industry's fight against airbags resulted in a staggering loss of life: an estimated 90,000 lives over 20 years.

The number of motor vehicle fatalities from 1974–1993 averaged about 45,000 per year, and recent data indicates that about 90 percent of those deaths occurred in the front seat where airbags would have been protective. NHTSA has estimated that front airbags reduce the risk of death in a car crash by 11 percent. This means that about 4,500 deaths each year could have been avoided.  An estimated 90,000 people over the 20 years would have survived the car crashes that killed them, if airbags had been in their cars..

Two more steps to better protect car users.

Auto safety is an evolving process. As technology advances, so can affordable car safety. Two key next steps include:

  1. Ensuring that airbags work as intended and do not fatally malfunction; and
  2. Continuing to innovate and include lifesaving technologies in all new cars in America

Standards like the DOT's backup camera requirement and getting car companies to incorporate crash avoidance technology as standard equipment will help save even more lives.

To deter future cases like the Takata airbags, prosecutors should have the authority to seek criminal penalties against corporate officials for failing to inform NHTSA and the public of serious defects in airbags and other safety technologies, as allowed under the 2014 Senate Hide No Harm Act proposal.

We owe it to ourselves and our loved ones to make sure that our cars are as safe as they can be, and the auto industry has a responsibility to make that a reality.


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well written