The Mises Institute monthly, free with membership
Volume 15, Number 2
The Dangers of Government Safety
Among the many excuses for government planning is that it makes life safer for one and all.
automobile bears the brunt of this central planning. Like most all interventions in the free market,
the effect of mandates to make the car safer is nearly the opposite. Witness the recent air bag
Joan Claybrook, a heroine to government boosters for decades, knew air bags were
lethal when she headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during
Carter years. Not that she cared. A Naderite lawyer with no knowledge of vehicle design or
engineering, Miss Claybrook chose to ignore the warnings of auto industry experts about the
dangers of air bags.
General Motors had given NHTSA the results of crash testing that showed air bags could
seriously injure and even kill infants and others of small stature. The engineers warnings were, of
course, dismissed, while Miss Claybrook preened before the media for forcing the automakers to
install these "life-saving" devices.
During those years, "consumer activists" labored under the nutty theory that private
are unconcerned about whether the people who use their products live or die, so long as profits
are high. All evidence to the contrary was dismissed as capitalist claptrap. It turns out, however,
that it's government, not the private sector, that put a low premium on human life. And still does.
Twenty years too late for the dozens of children killed by air bags, Miss Claybrook has
hands with the automakers in calling for mandatory "depowered" air bags that inflate with less
explosive force. After another five years of disasters, she will again design some ploy to deflect
her personal responsibility.
The best solution--permitting people to buy cars that aren't equipped with air bags at all--isn't
even on the table. The government wants you to have air bags, so air bags ye shall have. But the
risk and cost--which can include decapitation--aren't going to be shouldered by the regulators at
NHTSA and the Department of Transportation. That's your problem.
Air bags (one for the driver and another for the passenger, as required by current law) add up
$1,000 to the sticker price of a new car. And there are hidden costs as well. When an air bag
deploys in an accident--and it can be a very small accident--the entire steering wheel (which
contains the bag) must be replaced with a new unit at a cost of several hundred dollars or more.
The passenger bag frequently wrecks the dashboard, necessitating another $1,000 or more in
parts and labor.
The cumulative effect has been the escalation of repair costs; fixing an air-bag-equipped car
to 50 percent more costly than fixing a non-air-bagged car. This reality shows itself in higher
Owners of older cars with air bags often face another worry. Insurance companies frequently
want to "total" vehicles following a relatively minor accident, since the repair costs frequently
exceed the value of the vehicle. This is the price we pay to be "safe" as defined by government.
Stupid policy is not the exclusive territory of leftist harpies like Joan Claybrook, however.
Consider Elizabeth Dole. Though nominally a Republican and thus in theory an opponent of
meddling government, Mrs. Dole, as Secretary of Transportation under Ronald Reagan,
demanded the adoption of those appalling third brake lights ("Center High Mounted Stop Light"
in DOT lingo) that have festooned all cars since 1986.
These gems have all the panache of a low-budget, mail-order parts catalog. Not only are they
ugly, they're based on the presumption that drivers are so addled that they need to see not just
two brake lights but three before it dawns on them that it's time to depress that pedal to the left of
The predictable result is that drivers look at the third light while disregarding the lower
Ironically, this merely encourages tailgating by allowing drivers to scoot much closer to each
other, even at high speeds. This causes no net increase in awareness of stopping cars, but it
makes a relaxed drive a harrowing ordeal for all drivers, especially those with older model cars
or antiques that have no third light.
Mrs. Dole also gave the American people "passive restraint" seatbelts. Remember? Like an
overbearing drunk in a singles bar, these babies wrapped themselves around you the moment you
sat down. But we can be thankful for small favors. Passive restraint belts were deep-sixed
following the imposition of driver and passenger air bags.
If you've ever wondered why cars have gotten so expensive--even beyond the effects of
inflation--consider all the regulatory red tape the automakers have to contend with. Then look at
your new car and take note of all the extraneous safety gadgets that you would probably never
have paid for if you'd had the option.
High costs mandated by pesky officials are pretty aggravating. But sometimes, these
know-it-alls wind up getting people killed. Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards
were supposed to drive down oil prices, but only forced manufacturers to make lighter and more
dangerous cars that have resulted in thousands of deaths, even more than air bags have
In any event, politicos like Joan Claybrook and Liddy Dole should refrain from spouting off
matters they know nothing about, and then using government to override the market's tendency
to balance risk and consumer behavior.
The fact that they force us to pay--in financial terms and potentially with our lives--so they
feel good about themselves is enough to make one want to ride a bike, thereby fulfilling the
left-wing dream of abolishing the car altogether.
Eric Peters writes on automotive issues for the Washington Times