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The airtight case for air bags.


Last year, Joseph Anderson III'slife was saved by an air bag he didn't know he had. Anderson, driving his secondhand 1974 Oldsmobile at more than 50 mph down an unfamiliar road near Irwinton, Georgia, missed an abrupt turn and plowed into a solid dirt embankment. He escaped with only a bruised lip and scratches, thanks to a "hidden' air bag, factory-installed 11 years earlier.

"It took me awhile to figure outwhat had happened after the crash,' Anderson said. "I got out of the car, looked at the deflated bag on the steering wheel, and said, "What's that?' I didn't know what it was. If I buy another car, give me an air bag!'

No one has stronger feelings aboutthe need for air bags than the more than 400 persons who have been saved from death or serious injury by air bags. Out of the way and out of sight until they automatically inflate in crashes, air bags keep occupants from slamming into steering wheels, instrument panels, and windshields.

At Allstate we know this from personalexperience. Survivors' testimonies have crossed my desk many times over the years as part of regular reports on our corporate air-bag-equipped automobile fleet. Frankly, the same glowing comments that please me also frustrate me. Why? Because they prove the value of air bags beyond a shadow of a doubt-- yet delays continue in making the technology available to the public.

Many Allstate employees havedriven air-bag-equipped vehicles since 1972, when we ordered 203 specially equipped Mercuries to become the country's first fleet operator of air-bag automobiles. Since then, our air-bag-equipped fleet of Chevrolets, Oldsmobiles, Buicks, Volvos, and Ford Tempos has totaled more than 1,100 cars, traveling more than 30 million miles in a variety of weather and traffic conditions; the cars have been involved in more than 270 crashes, 10 sufficiently serious to deploy air bags.

Our first air-bag inflation in acrash--the initial real-world deployment by any air bag--occurred in October 1972, when an Allstate car collided with an oncoming 14-ton garbage truck. The bag inflated properly though the car was struck between 30 and 60 degrees right of front center. (Our air-bag system is designed to deploy in head-on as well as in frontal-area crashes such as this, these two types of crashes being the deadliest.)

Our second and third deploymentsof airbags were night crashes at high speeds in open country; each, oddly enough, killed a huge bull on the highway, one near Globe, Arizona, and the other near Clodine, Texas, two months later. The preformance of the air bags in both instances was perfect.

Darrell Collins, then an Allstatefield sales manager in Houston, hit a 1,600-pound Brangus bull near Clodine. Collins was driving one of our air-bag-equipped fleet cars, a 1973 Chevrolet Impala; he recalls the speed at impact to have been about 65 mph (a legal speed then). The car's left front flipped the bull up and over the top of the car; the bull hit the left rear fender. "The first impact was like hitting a solid wall, stopping the car almost immediately. I have no doubt that without the air bag, I would have been killed or seriously injured,' Collins said. The deploying air bag pushed aside but did not break his eyeglasses.

Allstate's interest in air bagshad developed four years before Collins' accident, when a 1969 safety presentation to Allstate's management prompted executives to visit several laboratories where air bags were being tested. After in-depth study, the executives agreed that air bags were a practical way to protect auto occupants in serious frontal crashes. The company was convinced that air bags, as the greatest single advance ever in automobile-accident loss control, would bring major reductions in deaths, suffering, and economic loss. We were concerned, however, that this promising device might never reach the highways without someone becoming a major public advocate, so we decided to assume the advocacy role and demonstrate our own confidence by investing in an air-bag-equipped fleet to test the system's performance in everyday use. Before assigning the vehicles to our employees, we launched an extreme-testing program to verify the complete reliability of these cars. In our tests at the Dynamic Science Laboratories near Phoenix, cars with live occupants were crashed at high speed into concrete barriers.

These dramatic tests and 14 yearsof operating a large research fleet have helped Allstate document the effectiveness of air bags. In all crashes involving deployment in Allstate cars, injuries to drivers and passengers have been limited to, at most, minor cuts and bruises. The bags always operated as expected, with no instances of accidental release or failures to inflate in an appropriate crash situation. Our experience is part of the accumulation of indisputable evidence that air bags, combined with safety-belt use, provide the most effective system to prevent loss of life and critical injuries in the deadliest kinds of auto crashes.

Of the more than 44,000 trafficdeaths in the United States in 1985, about 23,500 were occupant fatalities in passenger cars. It's estimated that more than 13,500 of these persons, riding in the front seats of passenger cars, were killed in front and front-angular collisions. Automatic crash-protection systems--especially air bigs--are designed for maximum protection. Their record of preventing or sharply reducing deaths and serious injuries in more than 1 billion miles of actual travel is unparalleled in highway-safety annals. We believe more than 10,000 deaths and more than 100,000 major injuries could be prevented annually by full front-seat air bags installed in all cars on the road.

Concerned groups and peopleaware of air bags' capabilities concur on their potential. Their superior protection has been known for years to such safety groups as the National Safety Council, the insurance industry, the International Association of Chiefs of Police, the American College of Emergency Physicians, the National Head Injury Foundation, the American Trauma Society, and the American Medical Association, as well as many other medical organizations. U.S. Secretaries of Transportation in every administration, Democratic and Republican, from President Nixon's to President Reagan's have determined that the air bag is the most effective occupant-restraint system in the deadliest types of crashes.

Air bags, and the seat belts alreadyin all cars, restrain occupants after an automobile is stopped abruptly in a crash (the "first collision'). It's the "second collision,' as the victims continue moving forward at the vehicle's pre-crash speed, that kills and maims: The moving occupants are slammed into the car's hard interior or are ejected. The purpose of air bags and seat belts is to ensure that when a car stops dead, the passengers don't.

Insurance and medical groups andthe vast majority of safety experts agree that safety belts and air bags are not alternatives--they complement each other. We need both.

Because more than 114 million automobileson the road are not equipped with air bags, safety-belt use is particularly important. Safety belts are most effective in low- to moderate-speed crashes and in roll-over and ejection-risk accidents. They lose some of their effectiveness in higher-speed impacts. Air bags prevent injury and death far better in frontal and near-frontal crashes at impacts beyond the 25 to 30 mph range. And for occupants who do not use seat belts, air bags provide crash protection vastly superior to no restraint at all.

After years of complete unavailability,air bags are again being sold to the public by an increasing number of automakers in the United States. Mercedes-Benz, which offered air bags as an option on several 1984 and 1985 models, has installed driver's-side air bags as standard equipment on all 1986 models. BMW and Volvo include a driver's-side air bag as standard equipment on some 1986 models. Porsche will also offer an air bag as standard equipment on at least one 1987 model. An air bag will probably be available, too, on the 1987 Honda Legend and the Korean Hyundai.

Ford is the one American automakernow equipping cars with optional driver's-side air-bag systems. General Motors announced early this year that it will offer air bags as a driver's-side option in an unspecified number of 1988 models, and Chrysler has indicated that its Laser will have driver's-side air bags available in the 1988 model.

Ford's air bag, offered on its four-doorTempo and Mercury Topaz models beginning early this year, costs about $815, much more than if installed as standard equipment in all cars. The cost of driver's-side-only air bags produced in quantities of one million or more is estimated at $234, and full front-seat air bags at $341. Edsel Ford, general marketing manager for Lincoln-Mercury Division of Ford Motor Co., recently estimated that if the industry mass-produced 10 million air bags, the price could come down to $200. But even at current prices, who can put a cash value on safety?

The big breakthrough for the publicmay be imminent, however. In July 1984, the U.S. Department of Transportation instituted a requirement that such automatic front-seat-occupant restraints as air bags or automatic seat belts be installed in every new passenger car by 1990. This ruling requires a gradual four-year, phased introduction of automatic restraints beginning September 1, 1986, to include 10 percent of 1987 model cars; the percentage would increase each year until 1990.

Photo: "Air bags add such a dimension to highwaysafety,' says Allstate's president, Dick Haayen. "Nothing should delay implementation of these automatic restraints to complement safety-belt benefits.'

Photo: Joseph Anderson III will never forget the night of June 30,1985, when an air bag he didn't know his 1974 Olds had inflated on impact and saved his life.

Photo: Tests prove reliability against inadvertent bagfiring. A car flies 40 feet and lands with force, yet the bag isn't supposed to inflate--and doesn't. Sensing devices activate only in frontal crashes. A test after the jump showed the bag to be perfectly operational.

Photo: Arnold Arms, M.D., walked away from a head-on collision with a Kansas City, Kansas, transit bus because his car was equipped with an air bag. "I survived certain death and was able to look after a passenger on the bus and make sure she was safe,' he says.
COPYRIGHT 1986 Saturday Evening Post Society
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1986 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:in cars
Author:Haayen, Richard J.
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Nov 1, 1986
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