TCS Daily

Air Heads

By Wendy L. Gramm - October 10, 2002 12:00 AM

USA Today reported Monday that the "smart" air bags required by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration are "so dumb they could kill or injure children and fail to protect adults in crashes." A review of the history of NHTSA's passenger safety regulation makes clear it is regulators, not air bags, who need to be smarter.

Over the last several decades, increasingly complex regulations have not only hindered innovation and denied consumer choice, but also subjected Americans to new vehicle risks.

NHTSA passed the first seat belt regulation more than 30 years ago, requiring passenger cars to be equipped with a seat belt for all forward-facing seats. Over the years, it added to the safety belt requirement, including mandating shoulder straps and lap belts.

It soon became apparent, though, that while seat belts improved the likelihood that those who buckled them would survive a crash, they didn't do much for people who didn't buckle them.

So, in 1984, NHTSA introduced its infamous passive restraints standard, which manufacturers met with a shoulder strap that automatically engaged over the occupant. Consumers despised these belts. Worse, occupants often neglected to buckle their lap belt, which left them even less safe than if they wore a lap belt alone.

In response to customer distaste for these shoulder straps, many automobile manufacturers began to offer air bags as a passive restraint alternative in all of their passenger cars and light trucks. Impressed with the air bag idea, NHTSA followed suit and made air bags mandatory in 1993.

The problem was instead of allowing manufacturers to design air bags to meet consumer demand, NHTSA's 1993 rules required that air bags meet certain tests. These tests required manufacturers to design air bags to protect a 180-pound male who chose not to buckle his seat belt.

Of course, air bags designed to that standard deploy too forcefully to help the under 180-pound crowd. As we now know, these "standard" air bags have resulted in some tragic deaths.

This history is reminiscent of a classic children's story written in 1880, from which NHTSA could gain some insight.

"The Peterkin Papers" by Lucretia Hale, tells the story of a well-meaning but not very intelligent family. One day, Mrs. Peterkin was dismayed to discover that she had mistakenly put salt instead of sugar in her morning coffee. It tasted awful. She called her family around to help her decide what to do. First, they took the coffee to the local chemist who tried adding ammonia and various other chemicals, including a dash of arsenic, to the coffee. But, each addition only made the coffee taste worse. They then proceeded to the neighborhood herbalist, who added more ingredients to improve the coffee, but again it only tasted worse. In desperation, the Peterkin family turned to the Lady from Philadelphia, who was said to be very wise. "Why don't you dump it out and make a fresh cup of coffee?" the lady asked.

In its first passive restraint regulation in 1984, NHTSA put salt instead of sugar in its coffee. Since then, it has been imposing ever more complex and restrictive requirements in an attempt to fix that mistake.

These "smart" air bags that are supposed to determine the weights and sizes of passengers, decide whether they are wearing their seat belt, and deploy accordingly are yet another bad - and unrealistic - attempt by NHTSA to devise a single set of requirements that will protect the safety of all vehicle occupants under all conditions. Unfortunately, regardless of how sophisticated NHTSA makes its tests, or how sophisticated manufacturers make air bags, this one-size-fits-all approach will not meet the preferences or - more important - protect the safety of all consumers under all conditions. Yet NHTSA will not even allow Americans the option of purchasing their vehicles with on-off switches, to say nothing of purchasing vehicles without the expensive "smart" air bag.

The moral of this story is clear: It is time NHTSA dumped out the coffee, and allowed manufacturers and consumers to pour a fresh cup.

The Hon. Wendy Lee Gramm is a distinguished senior fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, where she heads the Regulatory Studies Program. Susan Dudley is a Senior Research Fellow and deputy director of the Regulatory Studies Program at Mercatus Center.

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