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February 1997
Volume 15, Number 2

The Dangers of Government Safety
Eric Peters

Among the many excuses for government planning is that it makes life safer for one and all. The 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 fiasco.

Joan Claybrook, a heroine to government boosters for decades, knew air bags were potentially lethal when she headed the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) during the 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 companies 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 joined 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 to $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 is up to 50 percent more costly than fixing a non-air-bagged car. This reality shows itself in higher insurance premiums.

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 accelerator.

The predictable result is that drivers look at the third light while disregarding the lower lights. 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 government 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 supposedly saved.

In any event, politicos like Joan Claybrook and Liddy Dole should refrain from spouting off on 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 can 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.

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Eric Peters writes on automotive issues for the Washington Times

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