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Commentary and opinion on current civic, political, and religious events and issues.

Past Issue
18 June 2001

Northern City Journal
(ISSN 1528-9575)
Vol. 2, No. 25

Minneapolis, Minnesota

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When Zealotry Compromises Safety

The zealotry of air bag advocates led them to oppose mandatory seat-belt laws, ignoring clear evidence that seat belts were far more beneficial. As a results, many thousands of Americans died.

by Jerome F. Winzig

Sometimes political causes are characterized by a zealotry that compromises the very cause espoused by its adherents. That's what happened with the key advocates of air bags for automobiles. In a recent article in The New Yorker magazine entitled "Wrong Turn," Malcolm Gladwell, author of "The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference," describes the human cost of this zealotry.

The four individuals who played key roles in the misguided preference for air bags over seat belts are icons in automobile safety. William Haddon was a doctor and epidemiologist who wouldn't eat mayonnaise because it was subject to bacterial contamination. He applied that same fanaticism to the field of traffic safety. Haddon was convinced that the best traffic safety measures were passive ones that did not depend on the behavior of drivers who were allegedly unreliable, hard to educate, and prone to error. In 1958 he caught the attention of Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who at the time was working in the New York governor's office.

In the 1960s, Moynihan hired a young lawyer named Ralph Nader to work on traffic-safety issues in the Lyndon Johnson administration. Nader was a devotee of Haddon's auto safety views and converted a young congressional aide named Joan Claybrook, who would later head the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Together, these four succeeded in making air bags mandatory and -- not incidentally -- in blocking the passage of mandatory seat belt laws. Their zealous distrust of individual human behavior over several decades has cost many thousands of American lives.

In 1959, Moynihan wrote an influential article entitled, "Epidemic on Our Highways," in which he articulated Haddon's principles. In 1965, Nader's best-selling book, "Unsafe at Any Speed," also espoused Haddon's ideas. Nader claimed that seat belts were already obsolete and should be replaced by the "superior passive safety design" of "a kind of inflatable air bag." The ideas caught on. In one congressional hearing, Senator Warren Magnuson enthused, "You mean you can have a crash without an injury?" Congress established a new automobile regulatory agency that later became the NHTSA. Haddon was named its commissioner and Claybrook his special assistant.

While the design changes espoused by Haddon and his followers improved auto safety, they did not make U.S. highways the safest in the world. In fact, since the late 1970s, the U.S. went from first to eleventh place in auto safety. Leonard Evans, a long-time General Motors researcher and a world expert on traffic safety, points out that, if American traffic fatalities had declined at the same rate as they did in Canada and Australia between 1979 and 1997, there would have been approximately 160,000 fewer traffic deaths.

Why didn't they? A significant reason is seat-belt usage. In the early 1970s, while the push for air bags was the greatest, the Australian state of Victoria passed the world's first mandatory seat-belt law. Seat-belt usage there went from 20 to 80 percent and lives were saved. Canada, New Zealand, Germany, France, and other countries took notice and passed similar laws.

Nader, however, wasn't interested. According to Richard Peet, who founded an organization to advocate seat-belt usage, "Nader's organization went after me, saying that I was selling out the air-bag movement." Nor was Claybrook interested. In his book, "Auto Safety," John Graham says Claybrook "didn't do much on mandatory belt use because her primary interests were in vehicle regulation. She was fond of saying 'it is easier to get twenty auto companies to do something than to get 200 million Americans to do something.'" As late as 1984, a decade after Australia's success with mandatory seat belt legislation, Claybrook would write, "There is massive public resistance to adult safety belt usage."

The advocates of air bags ignored clear evidence they could never have the same impact as widespread seat-belt use. In 1973, a study performed at General Motors estimated that air bags would reduce fatalities for unbelted drivers by 18 percent since they only helped in frontal collisions. According to safety expert Evans, "NHTSA had this information and dismissed it. Why? Because it was from the automobile industry." Instead, when Claybrook took over the NHTSA in 1977, she renewed the push for air bags, claiming they would reduce fatalities by 40 percent. From his new position as head of the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, Haddon continued to advocate their use. In 1991, Congress decided to make air bags mandatory.

However, even General Motors' estimate of the benefit of air bags was overly optimistic. By themselves, air bags reduce fatalities by just 13 percent. In contrast, wearing a seat belt by itself cuts the risk of dying in a car accident by 43 percent. The addition of an air bag reduces the risk by just four additional percentage points, to 47 percent.

Gladwell's story is a disturbing tale of zealotry gone awry. It should lead us to distrust those who are too quick to claim that morality and right are on the side of their cause.

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