The Church Of Automotive Safety (Part 2)

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In Part 1 of this article, I discussed how scientific thinking differs from religious thinking and how using the wrong kind of thinking can hurt automotive safety. In this article, I’m going to apply my theory to a major belief in The Church of Automotive Safety: Airbags.

Recently, a reader asked us to look into the history of airbags. I knew that there were some issues with them, but what I found was appalling. This was actually where this article series started, and I didn’t know the big rabbit hole I was in for. Not only is there a big regulator failure here, but intellectually bad thinking has crept into society that needs to be corrected if we are going to be safe.

Dehumanizing The Dead

From 1990 to 2008, NHTSA says that 290 people died due to airbags. This is, of course, small compared to the thousands saved, but it’s insensitive and cruel to act like those 290 people were a sacrifice to a safety god and were thus lives well spent.

What’s particularly disgusting is how articles like this one fluff up airbags with praise before even mentioning the number of lives lost, and then blaming 90% of them for not wearing a seatbelt. The people who died (at least 29 of which did wear a seatbelt) were real people worth every bit as much as those saved. This older study was careful to point out how great airbags are before graphically describing the deaths of three children. Would you want your child to be written about that way?

Are we so worshipful of airbags in society that we are willing to dehumanize and minimize the value of the dead to avoid looking like an airbag skeptic? Is it really that bad to question them or point out flaws like the exploding Takata airbags?

To really find good journalism questioning airbags, you have to go back to the 1990s, before they became socially unacceptable to question. While most newer airbag deaths were caused by defects, early airbags killed hundreds while operating as designed. After 1998, manufacturers did more fine tuning to airbag systems to help lower (but not completely eliminate) the injuries caused.

Sexism is at least partly to blame. Airbag testing was mostly done with man-sized dummies, and then with 110-pound pigs. Shorter and lighter women were most of the early airbag deaths, because they simply weren’t considered until they started being maimed and killed by them.

Here’s a human example from the 1996 article (which starts with a named victim!):

“Mary Riordan was a strong believer in automobile air bags until the one installed in her 1989 Chrysler LeBaron almost killed her.

“She was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic in Bellmore, N.Y., three years ago when the driver’s air bag exploded in “a white flash” for no apparent reason and knocked her unconscious. When an ambulance attendant pulled Riordan from the car, she was not breathing and had no pulse.

“The attendant revived Riordan and got her to a hospital. But injuries to her neck and spine caused by the air bag have crippled the 58-year-old woman for life, leaving her scarcely able to walk, bathe herself or even brush her hair.”

After 2000 or so, reporting changed quite a bit as airbags improved. Instead of getting personal about airbag losses, writers started sugarcoating almost every time a bad story about airbags came out, even for defective airbags. You can find real journalism on this topic, but it’s a lot harder to find details on the deceased beyond what is necessary to either blame the victim or the manufacturer.

I want to do the opposite of that real quick here for a minute by looking at a couple of stories I was able to find from Australia.

Huy Neng Ngo was a 58-year-old man from Australia who got into a collision. When his Honda’s airbag went off, it threw a piece of shrapnel at him that tore through his neck, severing key arteries to his brain. Finally, it cut his spinal cord. He was dead within minutes from this, and would have been a quadraplegic if he had somehow survived the blood loss. What makes this particularly tragic is that he had scheduled the Takata airbags to be replaced under recall, and was waiting for his appointment.

Goce Velovski was a mechanic who drove a 1998 BMW sedan. When he heard of Ngo’s death in 2017, he was angry that they weren’t going to replace the Takata airbag in his older BMW. “They should fix all the vehicles, not just the newer ones,” his wife recalled him saying. Two years later, he got into an accident and was killed by the same airbag defect, leaving behind his wife and several children.

Dozens of people were killed by the Takata airbags, and the stories of others have been told here and there. Finding an actual list of the dead required that I look at an injury lawyer’s website, and even then there were still names missing.

Before anyone accuses me of being a conspiracy theorist, let me say that I don’t think there’s a conspiracy afoot here. It’s a cultural phenomenon. Airbags have been accepted, especially after 2000, and nobody wants people to think they’re crazy. The result is that airbags have become a sacred cow whose history and efficacy cannot be questioned without extreme caution and sugarcoating.

When people ask the wrong questions, the Inquisitors of The Church of Automotive Safety often show up in the comments and may even contact one’s employers to try to get them fired. Nobody wants that.

How They Went From Questionable to Canonical

Early airbags weren’t that great. They often had one setting: open fast and hard in case of collision. There weren’t switches or sensors to determine if a seat’s occupant was too small for an airbag to be safely used. The sensors that set them off weren’t very smart, either, because electronics were a lot more primitive in the 1990s. Even when better technology existed to deploy airbags more intelligently, it wasn’t cheap enough for people to afford in their cars.

As the prices of airbag technology improved, automakers gained more experience and figured out how to soften them up a bit, too. Around 2000, airbags improved significantly, and started causing far fewer deaths. After that, it became socially unacceptable to question, but these were also the years that defective Takata units were being installed in millions of vehicles.

These early airbag deaths, and possibly the more recent ones, might have been avoided if the federal government hadn’t rushed all automakers into adopting the technology, despite technological alternatives of the time that, in some cases, outperformed the airbag for years to come.

In Parts 3 and 4 of this article, I’m going to explore how things could have gone differently before moving on to another dogma of the automotive safety world: speed limits.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1773 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba