…because I was there. I wasn’t directly involved, I was in technician training, but I was there at a Ford product development facility where things got argued about. And the “consumer safety advocates” and the auto engineers and bureaucrats weren’t really arguing at all – they were talking past each other. The advocates were determined to make the car companies look like villains for not immediately agreeing to install small bombs in steering wheels, and the car companies were determined not to actually become villains – sued into insolvency by product liability attorneys – because they had agreed to install small bombs in steering wheels.
The advocates insisted that airbags were essential because people couldn’t be convinced to wear seatbelts. The car companies – who actually conducted crash tests – insisted that seatbelts were far more consistently useful in car crashes and that, while airbags might one day become useful supplements to seatbelts, they would never replace them and in any case the technology wasn’t ready. The very first airbag modules used compressed air to inflate the bag and most commonly didn’t serve any useful purpose at all. The ones the auto companies installed after the law making them mandatory in the mid-eighties used sodium azide and potassium nitrate “initiators*” that worked every time, often with tragic results. The advocates were right that airbags could and did reduce total fatalities caused by head and chest injuries. The auto companies were right that airbags would also cause fatalities from head and neck injuries, and that they’d get sued for it big-time.
All that was well over thirty years ago. The technology has moved on, the airbags have been painstakingly dialed-in to balance speed of inflation with violence of inflation – I don’t even know how they work anymore – and I don’t read many stories about them breaking the necks of small children any more. They have also proliferated to all sorts of places I predicted they wouldn’t go. But I was still there in the mid-eighties and saw it go down, and it’s still an interesting story to me.
Which is why I wasted nearly an hour reading this old account of the debate, from a 2001 article.
Wrong Turn – or, this is what happens when you put an epidemiologist in charge of traffic safety.
*I was involved in writing some of the first public documentation for post-law airbag-equipped cars and certain words were absolutely forbidden. Airbags “inflate.” They do not “explode.” No part of them “detonates.” Even though the “initiator” was basically a blasting cap in a small bomb, no matter what the lawyerspeak said.
When a large batch of airbag modules was recalled and collected into a Dearborn warehouse, the precautions surrounding them before their dismantling would have convinced you that technicians – myself included – certainly treated them as if they were bombs. Because they were.