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March 1999
Volume 17, Number 3

Death by Government
Thomas J. DiLorenzo

If there were justice in the world, Joan Claybrook, the head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration during the Carter administration, would be handcuffed to the steering column of a Volkswagen Beetle while an air bag was repeatedly blown up in her face. While in the government Claybrook forced on us the mandatory air bag rule. Then years later, after dozens of children were killed by air bags, she lied about her role in making them mandatory, as attorney Sam Kazman recently proved in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Even after it became known that air bags could kill children and smaller adults the government continued to insist that they be used, propagandized in favor of their use, and refused to make them optional. The regulators finally caved in and allowed switch-off devices in 1995, but it is nearly impossible to find an automotive service center that will install one because of their liability fears.

Perhaps the most egregious example yet of the arrogance, elitism, and outright contempt for ordinary citizens that characterizes the air bag regulators is the sad case of Dwight Childs of Parma, Ohio, whose infant son was recently killed by an air bag. The child was strapped into his government-mandated child safety seat, facing the back of the front seat of his father's pickup truck (which had no backseat) when an accident at an intersection set off the air bag, killing the baby instantly.

Mr. Childs was devastated and will never get over his child's death. But rather than faulting the air bag for the baby's death the government has prosecuted Mr. Childs, accusing him of negligence in failing to switch off the air bag. This is the same government that has spent untold millions of taxpayer dollars denying the dangers of air bags and urging us all to use them.

Mr. Childs was found guilty and cruelly and viciously sentenced by Municipal Court Judge Kenneth Spanagel to spend two days in jail: the day that would have been his dead son's first birthday and the anniversary of the accident. The sheet metal worker must also pay a $500 fine (due right around Christmas time), and perform "community service" in the form of educating the public about "air bag safety." George Orwell could not have imagined a more extreme example of tyranny shrouded in irony.

Mr. Childs was still in such a state of shock and despair at his hearing that he could not bring himself to speak a single word in his own defense. Clearly, Judge Spanagel should be forced to join Joan Claybrook in the front seat of that Volkswagen to experience for himself some "air bag safety."

Even though air bags are responsible for scores of deaths, they pale in comparison to the carnage that has been created by corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standards. To meet these standards the automobile industry has dramatically downsized its fleet, making cars narrower, shorter, and lighter. The result, according to a study by Robert Crandall published in the Journal of Law and Economics, is responsible for approximately 2,500 additional traffic fatalities each year.

Consumers have responded to this government-mandated death and carnage by buying millions of larger sports utility vehicles and minivans. This in turn has caused the ever-arrogant regulators and their accomplices in the environmental movement to begin advocating special taxes and regulations on these larger vehicles with the intent clearly to drive them from the market.

These examples of regulatory tyranny demonstrate a number of important lessons. First, the perpetrators of so-called consumer protection regulation don't care a flip about consumers. Their primary concern is bureaucratic empire building. Second, the environmentalists and nonprofit sector "consumer activists" who provide the "public interest" smokescreen for these regulations are just as contemptuous of consumers. Their real goal is to wage war on the institutions of capitalism, especially freedom of choice and private property. They hate the automobile precisely because it provides us with such a sense of freedom and independence.

We would be much easier to "control" if we could all be herded into the cities and forced to move about on socialized "mass transit," the pipe dream of every environmentalist and anti-car zealot. This is why I experience such a sense of gratification in owning both a large sports utility vehicle and a Camaro Z-28 convertible with an eight-cylinder, 305 horsepower engine. I never feel more alive than in my Z-28, puffing on a cigar, though the sight must drive the environmental busybodies and petty tyrants crazy.


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Thomas J. DiLorenzo is professor of economics at Loyola College and an adjunct scholar of the Mises Institute. FURTHER READING: "CAFE's 'Smashing Success': The Deadly Effects of Auto Fuel Economy Standards, Current and Proposed," by Julie DeFalco, in Competitive Enterprise Institute's Policy Publication, June 1997, and "Death by Regulation," by Sam Kazman, in Regulation, Fall 1991.

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