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Killing and Lying for Safety: Airbags and the Salvation State

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Airbags symbolize the bogus paternalism that increasingly blights Americans’ lives. In order to save lives, federal regulators seem to have granted themselves a license to kill. While airbags are sometimes seen as an arcane consumer issue, they are actually a great lesson of the danger of the combination of coercive power and bureaucratic arrogance.

Airbags are essentially explosive devices installed — thanks to Uncle Sam — in every new car’s dashboard. After even a slight jolt to your car bumper, an airbag can come smashing into your head at 200 miles an hour. While the FBI and ATF go ballistic each time they find some redneck with a pipe bomb, far more people have been killed by government-mandated airbags propelled by explosive charges than by all the pipe bombs ignited in the last 20 years.

Federal regulators knew decades ago that the devices could pose deadly hazards to children — yet suppressed the research and slandered all the critics of airbags as enemies of public safety. Because airbags were officially “safety devices,” the feds disregarded 1977 test results that showed the devices mangling cadavers.

Joan Claybrook, the chief of the National Highway Traffic Safety Agency at the time the government imposed the airbag mandate on the auto industry, declared in 1983 that the devices “really work beautifully and they work automatically and I think that that gives you more freedom and liberty than being . . . forced to wear a seatbelt.” However, this is the type of freedom that involves letting one’s self get killed in order to maintain the bragging rights of federal bureaucrats.

More than 65 children and short female adults have been killed by the bags, and more than 300,000 people are injured each year by airbags, according to federal safety statistics. Some infants have been decapitated by airbags. Many elderly people have had their vision or hearing severely damaged by the bags. A Harvard University study concluded that the bags had not saved the life of a single child. Other studies prove that the government has vastly exaggerated the number of lives the devices supposedly save. One General Motors expert recently denied that it could be proven that the bags had saved a single life.

Naturally, none of the bureaucrats who deceived the public have any liability to the survivors of airbag killings. If a corporation had withheld information about potentially fatal equipment that it had forced people to buy, the corporation would very likely be facing bankruptcy and prison terms for its responsible officers.

Once scandal erupted earlier this year over the growing number of dead babies, federal safety officials blamed parents, since the children had not been sitting in the back seats. Yet federal officials such as Claybrook had claimed that the bags posed no threat to children in the front seat. National Transportation Safety Board Chairman James Hall recently declared: “The fundamental flaw in this whole air bag debate has been a lack of guts on the part of public officials to put in place primary seatbelt enforcement laws.” “Primary seatbelt enforcement laws” means that police can stop and ticket or arrest people merely for not wearing a seat belt. Civil libertarians recognize such laws as a vast expansion in the arbitrary power of traffic cops over drivers. In other words, the solution to problems caused by power-hungry bureaucrats is to vest more power in other government agents. As usual, the cure to any problem caused by idiotic coercion is more coercion.

The government is offering other foolish advice to cover its tail. As General Motors engineer Leonard Evans observed, government is telling people that “if you are short, move your seat back and add blocks to the pedals so you can still reach them. . . . [But] by moving seats back, short drivers reduce their already compromised forward view, and make braking more difficult.”

The fight against airbags has been spearheaded for 20 years by Sam Kazman, a lawyer who first filed suit against the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration in 1977, when he was a staff attorney with the Pacific Legal Foundation. Kazman later joined the Competitive Enterprise Institute, where he has repeatedly shed light on agency prevarications and deceptions. Kazman revealed last year that a 1991 NHTSA memorandum discussed the agency’s concern that “bad press [on air bag deaths] could cause a lot of harm to the public’s positive perception.” Federal safety czars were more concerned about preserving consumer confidence than about killing consumers.

Kazman also recently put the benefits of air bags in perspective:

“If you buy a Geo Metro instead of a large car, you are increasing your risk of death by 100 to 200 percent. If you put an air bag in the car, you are reducing your risk of death by 10 to 15 percent. Your choice of car size can be ten times more important than whether or not to have an air bag in the car.”

Federal Corporate Average Fuel Efficiency-Economy (CAFE) regulations have effectively compelled automakers to offer Americans significantly smaller cars than people would voluntarily choose. The smaller cars have resulted in thousands of additional auto accident deaths each year. Kazman observes: “CAFE is probably killing more people than airbags are saving.”

Besides, federal bureaucrats have no right to claim credit for all the lives saved by airbags. Even without a government mandate, many Americans would have voluntarily purchased the bags, and auto companies would very likely have developed safer airbags if they were not being hounded with timetables and foolish mandates from Washington. The fact that many Americans voluntarily buy Volvos instead of far cheaper autos proves that Americans will pay for safety without some bureaucrat holding a gun to every car manufacturer’s head.

Many citizens, upon learning that airbags could kill them or their children, desire to deactivate the explosive devices. This proposal has thrown federal bureaucrats into a frenzy, and proclamations abound that the average citizen is not smart enough or not responsible enough to judge the risks. Apparently every dashboard in America has been nationalized under some eminent domain power of safety czars.

The Washington Post noted last June that “it took 23 years from the first suspected air bag death in 1973 for government officials to unveil a series of emergency proposals to correct the problems.” But nothing has been done: it is still a federal crime for a car owner to deactivate the safety bag in his car. NHTSA initially sought to minimize the power of citizens to deactivate the airbags by requiring people to provide a “medical justification” (such as shortness) to the federal government before they could receive permission to alter their own automobiles. After catching heat on that numbskull proposal, NHTSA revised its proposed regulatory change but is dragging its feet on making any official changes. The notion that people would have to seek government permission before disabling an explosive device government officials had placed in their cars is a sign of how servile many Americans have become towards their government.

While the news stories of killer airbags got brief attention from a handful of columnists and newspapers earlier this year, the outrage seems to have receded from public memory. Yet children are still being killed by the bags and old folks are still being severely damaged by them. And, as Kazman observes, “It is amazing that no one on Capitol Hill has picked this up as an issue.”

And, most important, the prestige of the salvation state remains far more intact than the heads of young children hit by air bags. No federal bureaucrat has apologized to the American public for his deception regarding this deadly mandate, and no politician has apologized for voting to force auto companies to install the bags in all new cars.

In the case of automobile safety regulations, would privatization of the transportation system solve the problem of government regulation of the automobile industry? Unfortunately, no, because government’s paternalistic efforts to protect us with safety mandates have no limits, whether we are dealing with the use of public property or private property.

How many more people will the government be permitted to kill in the name of safety? With so-called “safety mandates,” the federal government continually assumes that the less freedom people have, the safer they will be. But the notion that safety lies in permitting only government-approved risks completely ignores the risk of government power and the innocent people such power continues to kill.

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    James Bovard serves as policy adviser to The Future of Freedom Foundation. He has written for the New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, New Republic, Reader's Digest, Playboy, American Spectator, Investors Business Daily, and many other publications. He is the author of a new e-book memoir, Public Policy Hooligan. His other books include: Attention Deficit Democracy (2006); The Bush Betrayal (2004); Terrorism and Tyranny (2003); Feeling Your Pain (2000); Freedom in Chains (1999); Shakedown (1995); Lost Rights (1994); The Fair Trade Fraud (1991); and The Farm Fiasco (1989). He was the 1995 co-recipient of the Thomas Szasz Award for Civil Liberties work, awarded by the Center for Independent Thought, and the recipient of the 1996 Freedom Fund Award from the Firearms Civil Rights Defense Fund of the National Rifle Association. His book Lost Rights received the Mencken Award as Book of the Year from the Free Press Association. His Terrorism and Tyranny won Laissez Faire Book's Lysander Spooner award for the Best Book on Liberty in 2003. Read his blog. Send him email.