Having recently described a personal experience involving a serious auto crash, I've received lots of letters asking whether this has changed my view of government regulation. Specifically, did the praise I offered the engineers who designed and built seat belts and air bags signal a retreat from libertarian ideals? "You are vindicating Ralph Nader!" wrote one triumphant correspondent.
Actually, the fight over air bags was not so simple, nor was the outcome so unambiguous. Though some portrayed the matter as a battle between safety advocates and recalcitrant industry forces, it's actually closer to the truth to say that the battle was between safety advocates and the American people.
Seat belts have been standard equipment in cars since the 1970s. But government sponsored exhortations notwithstanding, they lay mostly untouched for many years. As recently as 1983, only 14 percent of drivers regularly buckled up. Since seat belts dramatically reduce deaths and serious injuries from car crashes, safety types surveyed the numbers and concluded that the answer was "passive restraints," i.e. safety devices that would function without any effort on the part of the passenger. Two such devices were favored: automatic seat belts and air bags.
In 1984, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration issued a regulation requiring that passenger vehicles contain either air bags or automatic seat belts starting with model year 1987 cars. Automatic seat belts were a disaster. Car owners detested them (as they had hated the warning bells that would only switch off when belts were buckled). Car repair shops made a fortune disconnecting the things.
So attention settled finally and conclusively on air bags. If people won't buckle up, went the reasoning, we'll have to protect them despite themselves. Or, as Ralph Nader put it when a student challenged him on whether people ought not to bear the consequences of their own decisions (like the decision not to wear a seat belt), "What are you arguing for, the right to go through the windshield?"
Air bags were designed to protect unbelted average-sized drivers. In order to protect those who would not take steps to protect themselves, the bags had to inflate at great force. They do work as advertised. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, between 1986 and 1998 air bags have saved about 3,148 drivers and passengers. The vast majority, 87 percent, was unbelted. But if you already use a seat belt, the added benefit of an air bag is not large. The NHTSA estimates that air bags provide only about an additional 10 percent of safety over and above 3 point seat belts.
In addition, air bags have also been shown to be less than risk free themselves. Using available data to 1998, NHTSA acknowledges that 44 adults and 61 children were killed by airbags. A huge campaign has been undertaken to educate people about the dangers of air bags to children. But small adults are in danger, as well. And there are other dangers more difficult to gauge. Consumers' Research magazine cites a research study showing that the presence of air bags may cause some drivers to behave more aggressively behind the wheel. Injury rates tend to rise when air bags are introduced in car models.
During the 1990s, most states enacted mandatory seat-belt laws and it is this, far more than passive restraints, that has caused serious and fatal injuries from car crashes to decline.
So, should air bags continue to be mandatory? I think the data suggest not. They are very expensive and provide only a small margin of extra safety over seat belts. (And for some drivers, they are dangerous.) Since 67 percent of drivers and passengers now buckle up (with more doing so every year), perhaps auto makers could offer air bags as options.
Libertarians favor dropping mandatory seat belt laws as well, saying it's no business of the government's to save people from themselves. I have sympathy for this point of view, but contemplating the thousands of children who are not orphans due to these laws, and considering what a trivial loss of freedom is involved in making seat belt use mandatory, I'm for them.