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The Life and Death of Airbags, (Part 1)

Their Conception and Birth

By Ed Wallace

Special to the Star-Telegram

What’s an automobile’s most critical safety feature? If you said the steering
controller or the accelerator actuator — “the big nut behind the wheel” — you’re
smarter than NHTSA was in the seventies.

“The Ford Motor Company, which had briefly looked into airbags in the late fifties, at
least had found out just how fast the triggering device would have to be to make an
airbag function in time to save a life: One fortieth of a millisecond.”

There seems to be a mistaken perception that the American public has always
demanded that the auto industry to do more to save lives in accidents. While that
may be the case today, it hasn’t always been that way. In reality, Ford gave us anti-
lock brakes in some of its upscale early seventies station wagons, but the option was
a failure at retail. General Motors first offered as an option a driver’s side airbag in
1974; but, like Ford’s anti-lock braking system, it too was a dismal failure

And the very next year, the federal government mandated interlock systems on
automobiles, which meant that if the driver didn’t buckle up, the ignition system
would not start the engine. The public backlash was so severe that, for the first and
only time I can remember, dealers allowed their mechanics to bypass the mandated
interlock system, because their customers demanded that its disablement be a part
of the car transaction. They put it bluntly: “Either disconnect it, or I’ll buy the
automobile from one of your competitors who will.”

Today, we would consider that a very strange request, but the 1975 car-buying
public wasn’t necessarily the type even to buckle up while driving. After all, in spite
of the fact that seatbelts had been around in aircraft for decades, they hadn’t even
become mandatory in automobiles until the mid-sixties. Why, when the first
Mustang was launched in April of 1964, seatbelts were standard equipment; but the
dealer could remove that piece of equipment and receive a $14 credit on the invoice.
And many dealers did just that, in order to advertise a lower selling price.

But it was the invention of airbags and their installation in automobiles, more than
anything else that moved us toward the concept of making real automotive safety
one of our primary demands when purchasing a new car. Sadly, airbags have always
been one of the most oversold safety devices ever invented. What’s worse is that,
because of them, hundreds of individuals have lost their lives in minor accidents —
fender-benders, in many cases; yet even today, the government will admit to only
242 killed by the modern airbag. And we all have poorly made and faulty World War
II torpedoes to thank for this.

Terror as a Trigger
It all started in 1952. John Hetrick, an industrial engineering technician working in
Pennsylvania, decided one weekend to take his wife and their 7-year-old daughter,
Joan, for a drive in the country in the family’s 4-year-old Chrysler Windsor. Cresting
a hill, Hetrick’s car almost hit a boulder that had fallen onto the highway; he
swerved to miss the rock and engaged what passed for automobile safety at the
time. Both he and his wife jammed their feet against the front floorboards and threw
their arms across Joan, in an attempt to keep the three of them from slamming into
the Chrysler’s metal dash. The car would end up in the ditch, the family shaken but
safe. And that night in his kitchen, Hetrick started thinking about a passive restraint
system that would activate in automotive emergencies, thereby saving passengers’
lives. Having worked for the military during the Second World War, Hetrick
remembered the cheaply made torpedoes and recalled how, when they were
transported, the compressed air tanks of many would rupture, sending their
protective canvas covers shooting skyward. Hetrick believed that the same concept,
of compressed air inflating a canvas bag in a car’s dash at the moment of impact,
could increase the survival rate of those involved in serious accidents.

The very next year, 1953, Hetrick received patent number 2,649,311 for his “safety
cushion assembly for automobiles.” The airbag had been conceived, but Hetrick’s
system never would have worked. Because in 1953, absolutely no one had any idea
just how quickly the destructive energy of an automobile accident moves into the
passenger compartment. We know now that a triggering device didn’t exist in 1953
that would have allowed Hetrick’s system to function fast enough. Hetrick did write
to the major car companies, suggesting that they meet to discuss his invention. Not
one even bothered to write him back.

But two years later, in 1955, David Peter Haas’ masters thesis at the Chrysler
Institute of Technology would cover the same ground as Hetrick’s work; Haas
envisioned a gas-powered airbag for use in front-end collisions. Unlike Hetrick and
his family, who had walked away from their accident, Haas was troubled by
nightmares featuring a childhood memory — the day his parents went through the
windshield of their automobile in a similar accident. Hiring Haas out of school,
Chrysler had little interest in his ideas for airbags; instead, he was assigned to the
company’s automatic transmission division. By 1964 Haas had had enough; he left
Chrysler for Eaton Corporation, where they’d started their own research on airbags.

Can’t This Thing Go Any Faster?

Things were starting to speed up on airbag research. The Ford Motor Company,
which had briefly looked into airbags in the late fifties, at least had found out just
how fast the triggering device would have to be to make an airbag function in time
to save a life: One fortieth of a millisecond. Realizing that no triggering device in the
world was anywhere near that fast, Ford pushed airbags down on the list of things
needing research money.

GM had also done a little work on airbags in that period, and now it was NASA’s
turn. Now, there were more than 75 million vehicles on the road in this country in
the early sixties, which you might think would have been a strong reason to pursue
airbags for cars more aggressively. But it was NASA that picked up on Ford and GM’s
airbag work; they needed to protect the astronauts we were sending into space. The
triggering device to make airbags work was still the fundamental holdup, so NASA
asked the military for help. And sure enough, in 1966, the Army successfully tested a
triggering device that would fill the airbag’s needs. The Army told NASA, NASA told
Detroit, and the airbag was on its way.

Dead or Deaf
Then some real problems became apparent. First, Ford’s group found that an
airbag’s explosion in use would generate 160 decibels of sound. (The loudest rock
concert ever came in at 120.) Permanent ear damage would result from that kind of
noise. Second, Ford engineer Don Frey calculated that airbags, with the force they
would generate, would likely kill or maim small women and children. Ford quickly
canceled plans to offer airbags in some of its 1971 products. The ball was back in
General Motors’ court. That company’s AC/Delco division, which had done the
design work for the accelerators on the Boeing 747, felt that those same units could
be adapted to control the amount of inflation the airbag would receive on
deployment, thereby minimizing the passengers’ chances of injury or death. And
that’s how, in many of its 1975 luxury cars, GM became the first auto manufacturer
to market airbags.

As previously noted, that option didn’t sell well, but enough airbags were on the
road that GM finally had real-world data on their effect in accidents. GM concluded
that airbags, at best, might have reduced fatalities by 18% — but other injuries and
deaths caused by this “safety device” offset any gain from its installation. Ford was
still doing research on airbags. That group had become convinced that airbags
diminished automobile safety more than they improved it — so much so that, when
one of their engineers sent off for one of their airbag patents, he actually asked that
the patent be issued for what he named an “executioner’s device.”

When Pigs Fly

There was some urgency felt to find an answer for the airbag problem, as America
for the most part was still refusing to buckle up. And, although few inside the
automobile industry had great hopes of finding more breakthrough technology
anytime soon, the airbag race had gone global.

In 1975, Volvo’s engineers were going back over Detroit’s groundwork; like Detroit,
Volvo was also trying to find some way to make airbags work without maiming or
killing their customers. But, unlike their American counterparts, who were starting
to work with crash-test dummies, Volvo’s people used small pigs for their
experiments in perfecting the airbag — 24 piglets, to be exact. The outcome of
Volvo’s tests didn’t show any great improvement in the performance of the airbag;
but it has long been rumored that for weeks those Volvo engineers worked while
dining on ham sandwiches.

Detroit Gives Up; NHTSA Takes Over

Detroit had tried its best for nearly 20 years to bring airbags to market. GM had
actually done it, for a short period. With all that experience, Detroit’s manufacturers
now believed that something else was the real answer to saving lives: They thought
their money would more wisely be spent on a national ad campaign to buckle up.
But, in spite of the airbag’s failures and shortcomings, by the late seventies the
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration was ready to take the automakers
on and force airbags onto the market. Next week: NHTSA wins the airbag debate,
then spends years covering up the catastrophe it has foisted onto the driving public
before listening to Detroit’s demands to finally make airbags safe.
The Life and Death of Airbags, Part 2

From 200mph Mandate to Actual Safety Device: The Slow Death of Airbag Problems

By Ed Wallace

Special to the Star-Telegram

The original airbag was killing children and small women, yet the government
forced auto manufacturers to make them standard. In time, better technology — and
stubborn automakers — prevailed.

“In the seventies Mercedes-Benz had perfected the design for crumple zones in
automobiles; a car so designed would itself absorb much of the energy from any
impact, which in turn would save lives. Mercedes patented its designs, and then
offered them free to every other car company — its gift to the world’s motoring

“What few people know, however, is that the government fought to force the unsafe
airbags on the public, in spite of repeated protests by Detroit, then covered up the
number of fatalities its mandate had caused.”

The idea of creating safer automobiles is not a new one. As early as 1912, Edwin
Budd had designed the first all-steel body for automobiles. True, Buick ordered a
few thousand of Budd’s new steel bodies for its products that year; but it was Dodge
that finally started moving the industry away from putting steel panels over wooden
frames, with the result that cars no longer fell apart in the most minor of accidents.

By 1935, a Detroit plastic surgeon, Dr. Claire Straith, had started his campaign to
force Detroit to design safer automobiles. As an example of what could be done, he
would display his personal car, one in which he had installed seatbelts and a padded
dash to protect his family in the event of an accident. And that same year Reader’s
Digest published an article titled “And Sudden Death” by J. C. Furnas, the first major
story describing the dangers of an automobile accident in graphic detail. From that
article: “ … in either case sends the driver hurtling at the original speed, making
every surface and angle of the car’s interior a tearing, battering projectile aimed
squarely at you — it’s inescapable. Like going over Niagara Falls in a bucket full of
railroad spikes.”

More than a decade later, Preston Tucker would take Dr. Straith’s warnings to heart
in his proposed new car. However, even Tucker’s attorneys warned him not to make
too big a deal of his automobile’s safety features; they feared the public would
assume that those features were necessary because Tucker’s car was inherently

Strictures vs. Safety

The public has always been of two minds about automobile safety. It’s no small
irony that the sixties, when the national fever was building for government to
mandate safer automobiles, was also the era of the Muscle Car. Oversized engines
powered cars riding on low-tech chassis; drum brakes, cheap bias-ply tires and a
solid metal dash were the only things stopping one’s forward momentum in an
accident. They’d stop you, all right — sometimes permanently.

The public started demanding some sort of miracle device to save them from harm
in their powerful, fast personal automobiles. Airbags, or the promise thereof, excited
everyone — except the engineers assigned to make those devices an automotive
reality. General Motors brought airbags to market in 1974, as a $300 option in its
larger automobiles, and was losing money on every airbag sold. The airbag was one
of the most rejected options ever introduced.

GM was already having second thoughts about whether the number of lives airbags
might save would equal the number of deaths and injuries they might cause. Ford,
Volvo and other car companies had reached similar conclusions from their early
research. But GM had quietly put airbags into 1,000 Chevrolets for fleet customers
the year before; and, during that test, an airbag deployment had killed an infant.
GM’s real-world test and the data it produced, along with the public’s rejection of
the device in 1974, soon convinced GM to discontinue the option.

Pundits, Politicos Push “Brilliant Idea”

Amazingly, only two years later, Transportation Secretary William Coleman
proclaimed that, if every single car made and sold in this country had airbags,
12,000 lives a year could be saved in accidents. Where he got that figure no one
knows, because the manufacturers’ research data and experience certainly didn’t
support it.

Then again, at the time the public had little faith in any automaker’s doubts about
new safety devices. We preferred to believe the government’s position, that Detroit
was simply dragging its feet on improving its products’ safety. So no one paid any
attention when, in 1979, the General Accounting Office released a report that sided
with Detroit’s position on airbags. No one, that is, except Joan Claybrook, then head
of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. She immediately disagreed
with the GAO’s assessment: “The trade-off in terms of saving thousands of lives
clearly outweighs these extraordinary and infrequent risks.”

As so often happens when personal passions are sold to the public, the
problematical airbags had been moved out of the realm of legitimate science; now
political pundits promoted them as “a brilliant idea long past due.”

But Does the Dog Drive?

Of course, the airbag wasn’t the only safety device being worked on by the industry
at the time; it was just the one that caught the public’s imagination. In the seventies
Mercedes-Benz had perfected the design for crumple zones in automobiles; a car so
designed would itself absorb much of the energy from any impact, which in turn
would save lives. Mercedes patented its designs, and then offered them free to every
other car company — its gift to the world’s motoring public.

Inefficient drum brakes were slowly being replaced by the far more reliable disc
brake systems, and it became apparent that anti-lock brakes would soon be coming
to market. Michelin’s 1940s radial tire design, another proven safety device, was
quickly replacing the inferior bias-ply tires we had all driven on for decades. And
safer interior designs had finally come of age, featuring Dr. Straith’s Depression-
born padded dashes. Yet all the public could talk about was the “sure thing,” airbags.

Then in the mid-eighties, manufacturers again started offering airbags in limited

numbers — most notably Mercedes-Benz, which also coined the more correct
nomenclature for the devices: supplemental restraint system. While Americans
were coming to believe that airbags were the ultimate safety device, German
engineers realized that airbags worked best when the passengers were also
properly belted in.

At the same time, Chrysler Chairman Lee Iacocca told the media, “This solution is
worse than the problem.” Unfortunately, by 1988 Iacocca’s Chrysler found itself
back in serious financial straits and with little new product coming online for the
year. So, in one of the most dramatic public turnarounds in automotive history,
Iacocca decided to add a driver’s-side airbag on many of Chrysler’s dated products
that year. And Iacocca launched a huge national ad campaign to promote that fact,
telling everyone that he personally had “seen the light.” This was proof, he said, that
“you can teach an old dog new tricks.”

Public Testimonials, Hushed-Up Deaths

Within a few months Chrysler ads were featuring testimonials by real owners; they
had survived serious car accidents, they claimed, because Chrysler’s airbags had
saved their lives. Suddenly, customers demanding airbags in their new cars
overwhelmed the industry, which was already headed toward an airbag mandate.
Then came one of the most serious cover-ups in automotive history.

Ford had followed Chrysler’s lead in 1989 by making airbags standard in many of its
vehicles; other car companies would soon do the same. But, at the same time,
reports started coming in of airbag-related fatalities in low-speed collisions where
the devices had deployed — accidents that otherwise would have been survivable.
NHTSA knew this problem existed; Detroit’s engineers had predicted exactly this a
decade earlier. So, quietly, the University of North Carolina was asked to study the
problem. UNC’s report, issued in 1994, claimed that the relatively small number of
airbags on the nation’s highways had already killed more than 130 people, mostly
children and small women.

As late as 1997, NHTSA was still denying those findings, claiming in its own
“Overview of (Air Bag) Problem and the Agency’s Remedial Actions” that only 97
had died — far fewer than UNC scientists had counted three years earlier. That same
year, government statistics claimed that airbags had saved 1,800 lives. (Hardly the
“12,000 lives saved per year” predicted in the seventies.) However, because
NHTSA’s figures on the number of motorists killed and saved fluctuated so much in
their PR stories in that period, its news releases had zero credibility.

While it never admitted that there was a problem, the government did suggest that
young children should never be seated in the front passenger seat, only in the back.
The public at large didn’t make the connection, but this suggestion was the
government’s reaction to the airbag’s potential for disaster — its quiet “disclosure”
that airbags and children don’t mix.

Automakers Win Safer Cars

Of course, by then the automobile manufacturers had finally won their battle to de-
power air bags, making them much safer. Newer technologies allowed dual-stage
inflation, so the bag no longer blasted out of the dash at 200 miles an hour.
Additionally, instead of the early eighties drivers’ 13% seatbelt use, it’s estimated
that America’s seatbelt compliance was now closer to 80%. Combined, the improved
airbags and seatbelts were finally saving lives.

And they continue to do so to this day. What few people know, however, is that the
government fought to force the unsafe airbags on the public, in spite of repeated
protests by Detroit, then covered up the number of fatalities its mandate had
caused. In time, once the technology had progressed, the automakers demanded to
be allowed to put safer airbags into their vehicles — yet it’s still assumed that the
automakers were the problem, not the solution.

As for airbags’ worth as a safety device, a Mercedes-Benz executive traveling in this

country a decade ago best summed it up. A journalist asked him why Mercedes
didn’t promote its airbags more. He replied that in Germany they considered anti-
lock brakes the far more important safety feature for automobiles. And then he
paused and added, “However, after visiting your country and witnessing how
drivers behave here, I can see where airbags are far more important to you.”