The auto airbag story has always interested me…

…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.

About Joel

You shouldn't ask these questions of a paranoid recluse, you know.
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11 Responses to The auto airbag story has always interested me…

  1. MJR says:

    Not a big fan of airbags. Sitting right next to a bomb has never been a pleasant feeling.

  2. Andrew says:

    I worked for a rechargeable battery manufacturer for a while.

    Batteries never explode. They ‘rapidly disassemble.’

    Saw a NiCad AA ‘disassemble’ rather extremely rapidly, as it rapidly disassembled the charger, throwing pieces over 20′ away.

    Technical writers are often masters at the art of understatement.

  3. I always wear a seat belt, and always have. I am less enthusiastic about air bags. My daughter was wearing the seat belt, and had an almost new car with the full complement of air bags, and she still died instantly when the other car hit her. If it’s your time, it’s your time. I’m still going to wear a seat belt, but I don’t put a lot of faith in them.

  4. MamaLiberty says:

    I’ve wondered for a long time how I might disable the airbag thing in my old car. I’m only five foot tall, and the airbag would hit me right in the face… I talked to my mechanic once about it. He said I could remove the fuse – but he refused to do so or even show me how! I’m sure he was terrified he would be sued if he did and something happened… despite my assurances to the contrary.

    There are fuses in two places on that car. None of the fuses are labeled “airbag.” I have a different mechanic now. I’ll ask him. :)

  5. travellingmanblog says:

    Joel, yesterday I had my VW in for dealer service, received a notice from VW headquarters that mine had to have the driver airbag replaced (as in Takata exploding shrapnel recall). The tech took all of 40 minutes to open up the steering wheel and replace the module. They did not even disconnect the battery when doing this as my radio still had the station programmed on when returned.Maybe the removed the fuse to the unit, I sure would if meddling with the module. Nice to know that maybe now I wont be penetrated by sharp bits of metal in a frontal collision (I said maybe, who knows if the new module is any safer). Life goes on.

  6. I wonder how they handle this in u-pull-it salvage yards? Do they only work when there’s power available?

    Haven’t been to a salvage yard in years – and I was always looking at pre-airbag vehicles.

    I’m reminded of when I first pulled the steering wheel off an old Ford – wish that one had some sort of airbag! I just about knocked myself silly. Didn’t know the trick about leaving the nut on loose the last few threads. I guess that time I lived up to the old diagnostic joke about ‘loose nut behind the wheel’.

  7. Mark Matis says:

    I’m reasonably confident, MamaLiberty, that if you whacks the front bumper of your car with a sledgehammer, the driver’s side airbag will no longer be a problem.

    Pulling the fuse isn’t going to guarantee the friggin’ thing won’t still explode in your face when it chooses to do so. Any more than “disabling” the passenger side airbag will, either. However, once the airbag is deployed, regardless of whether by hammer or any other means, there is no longer ANY chance of it blowing up in your face unless and until you install a new one…

  8. MamaLiberty says:

    Well now, I never did even consider that possibility. Wouldn’t want to damage the bumper, of course, but the alternative might well make it worth doing.

  9. Joel says:

    It would probably take more than a sledgehammer, ML. There’s an accelerometer that requires a pretty good jolt. For example, if another car backed into your front bumper in a parking lot, the airbag probably wouldn’t go off even if the ignition were turned on.

  10. MamaLiberty says:

    I wondered about that, Joel. So, we’re back to finding the fuse. That actually sounds more my speed anyway. :) I have a sledgehammer, but I’m not sure I can even lift it anymore. LOL

  11. Mark Matis says:

    Oh come on now, guys! Next thing you’ll be trying to tell me this is fake:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u2zgr_Gg11U
    }:-]

To the stake with the heretic!