The Automobile Airbag Controversy Essay Research Paper

The Automobile Airbag Controversy Essay, Research Paper

The Automobile Airbag Controversy

Since their invention, airbags have been one of the most controversial issues in the country. Airbags are designed to help prevent major injuries in car accidents by cushioning the blow delivered to the body. However, airbags can also cause injuries or death. While the government mandates that all new cars be equipped with airbags, a growing number of people are convinced that they should have the option of activating them. As the number of cars equipped with airbags increases, the number of deaths and injuries caused by them increases as well. The government should not be allowed to mandate equipment that can cause injury or death.

Years ago, seat belts in automobiles became mandatory to help prevent injuries in accidents. The original seat belts were active restraints; they required the operator to take some action in order to be restrained. While education and advertising increased the use of seat belts over the years, a large portion of the population was still not buckling up. The government s response was legislation in 1984 that required a driver s side passive restraint device be part of every 1990 model car sold in the United States. Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole is credited with sponsoring legislation that would allow passive restraints to be gradually phased in between 1984 and 1990, making the mandate more palatable to the auto manufacturers. A passive restraint is one that requires no action by the operator. The acceptable passive restraints were either an airbag or a motorized seat belt. Although the motorized seat belt is billed as a passive device, it still requires the operator to buckle the lap belt. Seemingly, the airbag is more passive, but it is designed to supplement the seat belt, so the operator is still required to buckle up. The airbag is more discreet than the motorized seat belt, being tucked into the steering wheel or just above the glove compartment on the passenger s side. Motorists found the motorized seat belts to be annoying. Many preferred the airbags, which were invisible and tucked away until

needed. Airbags have become the clear preference of auto manufacturers and most consumers.

This represents a complete turn-around from a few decades ago. In 1969, Transportation Secretary John Volpe proposed that automobiles be equipped with an airbag type of safety

device. The auto manufacturers vehemently objected. They did not want to incur the costs of development or testing. (Golfen 4)

Airbags were designed for frontal impacts. There are generally three sensors along the front of the car, usually along the bumper, that detect a frontal impact. The number of sensors and their location vary from one manufacturer to the next. Most are situated to detect head-on collisions and front-end crashes within a 30-degree angle of the direction of travel. Bags are of no help at all in a side impact, rear impact, rollovers, or subsequent impacts. (Golfen 2) When at least two of the sensors detect an impact, an electronic signal is sent to the airbag, which causes it to inflate. Airbag sensors have been refined. The newer sensor requires an impact of greater than the force of a car hitting an immovable barrier at a speed of 14 miles per hour. This prevents airbags from inflating in minor fender benders and parking lot accidents. This sensitivity far exceeds the government requirement of an impact of 30 miles per hour. This means that airbags may deploy more frequently than required. When an airbag is prompted to deploy, a solid, inert chemical called sodium azide is ignited. The chemical is stored inside the airbag system. Once ignited, azide turns into a clean-burning nitrogen gas. This immediately expands and rapidly inflates the air bag at a speed of just under 200 miles per hour. The airbag pops out from behind a thin plastic covering. In some cars, the plastic cover pops off entirely, whereas the plastic cover in other cars is hinged and opens like a door. The plastic covers are obviously not intended to hit the occupant. This whole airbag inflation process occurs in only a few nanoseconds. (Risen 2)

Airbags were not designed with every driver and passenger in mind. The original airbags were designed to protect the average-size, 190 pound unbelted male driver in a head-on crash. The current design philosophy is almost completely different. Our strong position is that the bags are great, but they re meant to supplement the belts, not replace them. (Golfen 2) Airbags inflate with the same force regardless of the occupant of the seat. This means that children and small adults are being hit by an inflating airbag with the same force as a full-grown 190 pound

male. Auto manufacturers are now recommending that children ride in the back seat of cars, as airbags were never designed to protect them. However, children aren t the only people at risk.

Drivers, especially those under five feet two inches, are particularly vulnerable. Because of their small size, they may be situated too close to the airbag. The ideal distance that a person is supposed to be seated from an airbag is twenty-five centimeters from the center of the person s sternum to the center of the airbag cover. An easier rule of thumb is to be at least twelve inches away from the dashboard or steering wheel. Leaning forward in the seat to adjust the radio, heat or air-conditioning, or visor can all potentially place the driver or passenger too close to the airbag for safety. A passenger who reacts to an impending frontal crash by stretching their arms out to the dashboard can easily end up with broken arms, or facial or injuries. (Nauss 5)

Compared to the amount of deaths in cars without airbags, there has been a decline in deaths in cars with airbags. Because it is hard to determine whether a driver or passenger would or would not have been killed without airbags, statistics vary on how much they have helped. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration estimates that deaths of drivers with seat belts have decreased by twelve percent in automobiles with airbags that deployed and belted passenger deaths have decreased by nine percent. The percentages are higher for passengers who did not have their safety belts on. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration claims that 4,750 people owe their lives to airbags. (Hazleton 78-79)

Since 1990, close to one hundred and fifty deaths have been caused by airbags inflating in low severity crashes, including almost ninety children and infants. The number of injuries caused by airbags is in the thousands. Minor injuries include bruises, abrasions, soreness and lacerations. About fifteen percent of the injuries that have been tracked involve fractures and dislocations. The location of the injuries differs for passengers and drivers. Passengers generally sustain facial injuries. Passengers also sustain more injuries to their lower extremities than do drivers. Drivers are usually injured in the upper torso area or in their upper extremities. Fifteen percent of passengers and ten percent of drivers also experience breathing difficulties after the deployment of the airbag. Breathing difficulties were caused by the impact of the airbag. The powder that the airbag is packed in caused coughing in some injured passengers. About one percent of injured occupants experience eye irritation from the powder. (Nauss 3)

Since December 18, 1997, motorists have been able to petition the federal government to install on/off switches for their vehicle s airbags. These motorists must meet very strict

standards. One of the standards is adults who must put children in the front seat because they have large families or are in carpools and they need to use all of the seats in the automobile. Another standard covers adults who must put a rear-facing infant seat in the front seat because of a medical problem or because the car does not have a back seat. Short drivers who cannot sit far enough away from the airbag may also petition for an on/off switch. Those with certain medical conditions may petition as well. Motorists who petition for an on/off switch are required to read a brochure about airbag safety and sign a document under penalty of perjury stating that they fit into one of the higher-risk categories. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration developed the petition process to respond to thousands of consumers who wanted to deactivate their air bags. (Cole 1)

Canada s statistics on lives saved or lost due to airbags are markedly different than the United States. In Canada, only five people have been killed by airbags. One was a ten-year old boy and the other four were adults. Canada does not keep the same statistics on lives saved by airbags, but estimates the numbers are significantly less than in the United States. This is attributed to the safety consciousness of Canadian drivers. Ninety-five percent of Canadians buckle their seat belts, whereas only sixty percent of Americans buckle their seat belts. Canadians are also more diligent about putting infants and children in the back seats of their cars, including rear and front facing infant and child seats. There is a higher public awareness of airbag hazards in Canada. Despite higher speed limits in Canada, there are significantly fewer traffic injuries. Because Canadians are smarter drivers, airbags are virtually unnecessary in reducing automobile injuries. Safety-conscious Canadians who habitually buckle up are being placed in jeopardy because our government went along with the United States standard, complying with an aggressive air bag designed to protect unbelted Americans particularly young, reckless males. (Moyle 3)

The United States government has mandated that Americans use a piece of equipment that is known to have caused injury and death. The government has decided to address the issue of poor American safety habits by forcing drivers to use a passive piece of safety equipment that

can harm those who would otherwise be in no jeopardy. As airbags have evolved, their speed of inflation, the safe distance to sit from them, and the force and location of impact to inflate them

have all changed. Americans have very little knowledge of their own airbag mechanics, let alone the mechanics of airbags in rental, leased, or borrowed cars. Airbag safety is too confusing for the average American and virtually no education is provided when purchasing, leasing, or renting a new or used car. Canada has addressed the safety habits of their citizens with more aggressive education and stricter seat belt laws. Despite airbags, the American safety record still falls far below that of Canada. Airbags are not the answer. Education and a zero tolerance for unbelted drivers and passengers should be the first steps that the United States takes to solve their automobile safety issues. The United States government has no right to force its citizens to sit behind a potentially dangerous object.


Cole, Kenneth. Feds Allow Some To Turn Off Air Bags. Detroit News 19 Nov. 1997: 1.

Golfen, Bob. It s In The Bag. Arizona Republic 21 Oct. 1995: 1-5.

Hazleton, Lesley. Everything Women Always Wanted To Know About Cars. New York: Dell

Publishing Group, 1995.

Moyle, Elaine. Airbag Controversy Grows. Toronto Sun 6 Aug. 1998: 1-3.

Nauss, Donald W. In Harm s Way. Los Angeles Times 19 Aug. 1996: 1-5.

Risen, James. Accidental Airbag Inflation Unlikely. Los Angeles Times 8 Jan. 1993: 1-2


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