Allowing car dealers to disable millions of air bags would needlessly jeopardize many lives, while continuing to use those bags surely will save thousands.
Fixing a national safety crisis involving air bags is especially important now because at least 69 million cars in the United States are under recall for having potentially defective bags made by Japanese company Takata that might go off and injure or kill drivers and passengers.
Moreover, Takata’s air bag recalls may expand to cover 118.5 million vehicles worldwide in the biggest safety crisis in the history of the auto industry.
This week, a Senate report said several automakers are still selling new vehicles with the defective bags.
However, the company doesn’t have the capacity to manufacture the volume of equipment needed to replace them quickly, being able to make about only 450,000 air bag replacement kits per month.
Let’s do the math: The recall is so massive it will take until nearly 2020 to fix all of the faulty bags.
The government could order Takata to run double or triple shifts to speed up production of the replacements. That would improve the risks somewhat by reducing the time of danger to motorists, but it still leaves many vulnerable for years.
Meanwhile, one scary proposal would have the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration allow auto dealers to defuse the bags under recall until the units can be replaced. That would leave millions of drivers and passengers without essential air bag protection during the time it takes Takata to make the necessary replacements.
A year into the ongoing, long-term recall, less than a third of the defective air bags had been replaced.
Disabling the units is a terrible idea because air bags save many lives of drivers and passengers. According to government estimates, 2,213 lives were saved in 2012 alone by frontal air bags, and those bags saved an estimated 39,976 lives between 1987 and 2012.
The bags reduce driver fatalities in frontal crashes by 29 percent and reduce fatalities of front-seat passengers ages 13 and older by 32 percent.
This is very important because frontal-impact crashes represent 59 percent of passenger vehicle “tow-away” crashes and result in 38 percent of passenger-vehicle occupant fatalities, according to NHTSA.
Meanwhile, side air bags that protect the head reduce a driver’s risk of death in driver-side crashes by 37 percent and an SUV driver’s risk by 52 percent.
No one knows how many of the bags under recall would actually malfunction, but the risks posed by those bags seem relatively small by comparison to the number of lives saved. According to one piece of research, passenger-side air bags installed in the 2001-2006 Honda Civic and 2003 Accord have a 0.51 percent failure rate, or about one in every 97 cars.
And defusing the potentially defective air bags would make a mockery of the heroic efforts of such auto safety pioneers as Ralph Nader, Joan Claybrook and Clarence Ditlow, who along with the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, worked so hard to get the federal government to mandate air bags as an essential life-saving device.
Amid some controversy, air bags began appearing on some General Motors and Ford cars in the 1970s - initially on a government fleet of Chevrolet automobiles. GM’s Oldsmobile Toronado was the first car with passenger air bags to show up in dealer showrooms in 1973, but the automaker dropped that option in 1977, citing consumer disinterest.
After seat belts, the air bag has by far been the most significant advance in automobile safety. This is no time to play Russian roulette by disabling this crucial safety device.
Whitt Flora is an independent journalist who formerly covered the White House for the Columbus Dispatch and was chief congressional editor for Aviation Week & Space Technology magazine. Readers may write him at 319 Shagbark Road, Middle River, MD 21220.