AT LEAST 87 people have been killed by air bags in the past 10 years. The victims were mostly women and children, and the air bags that caused their deaths were working properly. Those air bags were in the victims' cars by order of the US government. The government never told the victims that air bags could kill. It told them that air bags would make them safe.
Who, I wonder, is going to apologize to the families and friends of all the people killed by the government's air bag mandate? Joan Claybrook, who pushed hard for that mandate when she ran the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration during the Carter administration? Today Claybrook washes her hands of any responsibility for air bag fatalities. But when skeptics raised doubts about mandating a safety device that had not been properly road-tested, it was Claybrook who pooh-poohed their worries.
Joan Claybrook, appointed by President Jimmyt Carter to serve as administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, was the first woman to hold that position.
Air bags, she insisted on CNN in 1983, are "much better than seat belts" because they "would protect all front-seat occupants in those types of crashes where 55 percent of the public is now killed." She called them "the best solution," since "they fit all different sizes and types of people, from little children up to . . . very large males. So they really work beautifully and they work automatically and I think that that gives you more freedom and liberty."
More freedom and liberty, in some cases, to bury your child.
Claybrook wasn't alone in claiming that air bags were just the thing to keep small kids safe. On Tuesday, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a market-oriented think tank in Washington, was circulating an old newspaper photo of Ralph Nader, Claybrook's mentor and the founder of Public Citizen, the lobbying group of which she is president. The caption reads: "Ralph Nader uses a 3-year-old girl to demonstrate the use of the air bag in a 1977 press conference." (It is unclear which newspaper originally published the photo.) Notice how those who demand stricter government regulation — on air bags, tobacco, global warming, anything — always claim to be acting "for the children."
Claybrook and Nader won't be apologizing for the untimely deaths of 87 women and children. Nor will anybody from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration or the US Department of Transportation. Government controllers and those who press them to restrict our choices never say, "I'm sorry." They only issue orders; we live with the consequences.
Granted, air bags save lives. Like every other product, they offer benefits as well as costs. But it should be up to consumers to weigh those costs and benefits and up to the market to enforce consumers' wishes. A handful of federal regulators cannot figure out anything about making a car safer that 150 million automobile owners won't figure out faster and more accurately.
According to the NHTSA, air bags have preserved 1,600 lives. Against that are the 87 (or more) lives they have wiped out. A safety device that kills once for every 19 times it rescues is not self-evidently a safety device that belongs in every car. It is a safety device that should be an option with every car.
Yet even now, when we know air bags can kill, the government won't allow car buyers to make the choice. The most it will permit is the installation of an "on-off" switch — but only by drivers who submit applications proving to the government's satisfaction that they need one. If they fill out the forms and if they receive a permit, federal authorities will allow them to hire a mechanic to add the cutoff switch to their dashboards. Estimated cost: $150 to $200.
In other words, the government will keep making citizens pay a lot of money for something they may not want or need or trust. Then it will allow them to spend even more money to avoid the consequences of what they were made to pay for.
And it isn't just air bags. Time and again, we see the pattern. Two examples:
* Every employee has to pay 15.5 percent of his wages — more than one-sixth his income — into Social Security, the government's mandatory retirement fund. For most workers it is a losing proposition; they will never get back what they paid in, let alone earn a decent return. If they rely on the government for their retirement income, they'll end up destitute. Ah, but the government provides a recourse: It lets workers make up for the money they lose to Social Security by earmarking even more of their earnings for private funds, such as IRAs and 401(K)s.
* Every homeowner is compelled to subsidize public schools, whether or not he uses them or even approves of them. In many communities, public education has collapsed: the curriculum is filled with PC drivel, students learn little of history and nothing of math, and standards and discipline are disintegrating. The only escape hatch is for parents to pay twice — once to the government, and once to a private or parochial school, where genine education still takes place.
On these matters and so many others, the presumption of the state is that we are children, unable to answer important questions for ourselves. What safety features does the car need? How should a retirement pension be provided for? Where should the children go to school?
The government involves itself in decisions far beyond the rightful scope of its authority and drives up the cost we pay for nearly everything. Sometimes that cost is in dollars and cents. Sometimes — as the loved ones of 87 air bag users can tell you — we pay with our lives.
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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