An airbag discussion.

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 1991

Dear Tom and Ray:

I would like you to discuss air bags. I'm curious about whether they really work, and why all cars don't have them. If air bags save lives, why aren't they mandatory?

RAY: Yes, Katherine, air bags do save lives--as well as teeth, noses, hair-dos, brains, and entire heads. And it sure doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out why. Even my brother knows it's better to get whacked in the face with a whoopee cushion instead of a steering wheel...

TOM: Huh?

RAY: You have to remember, though, that the air bag by itself won't save your life. It has to be used WITH your seat belt.

TOM: According to tests done by NHTSA (The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration--pronounced NITZA), if you're wearing a seat belt AND your car has an air bag, your chances of going to the big used car lot in the sky go down tremendously.

RAY: Right. We can look at the research in terms of three driving scenarios. Scenario I: no seat belt, no air bag. Scenario II: seat belt only. Scenario III: seat belt and air bag. If 100 people were involved in really bad head-on collisions, no one in scenario I would survive. In Scenario II, with the seat belt, perhaps 40 of the hundred people would survive. In Scenario III, with the seat belt AND air bag, as many as 55 might make it.

TOM: So why don't all cars have air bags? Mostly because of--what else--politics. When NHTSA tried to make them mandatory, all of the auto companies cried like babies, claiming no one would buy cars if you added a mandatory $500-$1000 to the price of each car. And NHTSA wimped out and changed the wording from "air bag" to "passive restraint system."

RAY: That was a real mistake, because "automatic seat belts" qualify as "passive restraints." And automatic seat belts are lousy. Either they're attached to the door, which makes it impossible to get in or out of the car--or they have those stupid motorized shoulder harnesses.

TOM: The motorized seat belts are especially bad because they make you think you have a seat belt on--but you don't. They operate only half the belt--the shoulder harness. You still have to attach the lap belt yourself. By itself, the shoulder harness could be even worse than no belt at all since it could strangle you in an accident as your body tries to slide under the dashboard--passively restrained only by your neck! Great system, huh?

RAY: So our advice is to insist on an air bag. Don't buy a new car without one. After all, it's pressure from car buyers like you that has made air bags available in as many cars as they are now!

TOM: We should add that American car makers have been much more responsive than the Japanese when it comes to air bags.

RAY: That makes two technologies in which we're way ahead of the Japanese.

TOM: Two? What's the other one?

RAY: Cupholders, you dummy. Cupholders!

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