Auto Safety and the Laws of Unintended Consequences, Pt 1

Unintended consequences always arise from every mandate or law that was instituted in the name of safety – especially if that mandate is a one-size-fits-all answer to a question that nobody asked. The implementation of a generic safety mandate, especially in cars and trucks, fails to factor-in the modifications needed for some of the uses that specific vehicles are needed for – especially emergency vehicles, such as police cars.

When air bags were first mandated in 1990, there were two major flaws that put into question their value as safety features. The first part of this mandate required driver and passenger air bags; cars without passenger-side air bags needed front door-mounted seat belts instead. Unfortunately, if one or both doors were forced open in a collision, those door-mounted seat belts were unable to keep a seat belt wearer from being ejected from their vehicle. Second, all early air bags inflated with the same force. The possibility of an air bag doing what it was designed to do posed serious, life-threatening dangers to children, small adults, and pregnant women.

In the 1970s and 1980s, former WLS AM disc jockey Larry Lujack had a segment on his radio show called “Animal Stories” – some of these bits are available on CD. On Animal Stories, Volume I, a track called “Pig Survivor” describes air bag tests that were conducted by General Motors and Volvo which used live pigs to simulate children and small adults. These tests were a preview of the dangers that would surface in post-air bag-mandated cars.

Since this Animal Stories bit probably aired in the late seventies or early eighties, it was obviously no secret that rushing air bags into production vehicles would prove to be a tragic mistake, unless their inherent dangers were removed. However, for those who live by the mantra “if it saves one life,” the countless lives that are lost as a result of a law or mandate aren’t as significant as the one that may or may not have been saved by the hands of a politician or bureaucrat.

Despite the introduction of dual-stage air bags which use seat-mounted sensors to determine the weight of a passenger, some dangers persist – especially if a car or truck needs interior modifications in order to perform a specific job.
When the 1993 Chevrolet Caprice was introduced, it sported a redesigned dashboard that included a passenger-side air bag. Since the Caprice was the most popular police vehicle at that time, any agency that needed those cars with aftermarket radios, computers, and other equipment needed to install everything as to keep an inflating passenger-side air bag from turning improperly-mounted equipment into flying projectiles during a collision.

Just like a catalytic converter, it was – and still is — illegal to remove or modify an air bag in a vehicle that you own. Although passenger-side deactivation switches are permissible, the fear of lawsuits prevent their installation by some government agencies, as well as some equipment installers. This has created some challenges that have only multiplied as the number of mandated air bags has increased in recent years.

Side-curtain, knee, and seat-mounted air bags have meant that police departments have had to spend thousands of dollars per vehicle on equipment that is air bag-friendly. With the demise of the Ford Crown Victoria – a victim of new mandates that were cost-prohibitive for Ford to justify for a model that had a tiny share of the car market, equipment such as prisoner partitions – equipment that technically could have fit almost every vehicle that was used as a police car since 1977 — became useless as a result of artificial, government-mandated obsolescence.

The biggest advantage of using equipment that could fit in cars that have been produced for so long is that there is a tiny market for aftermarket police vehicle equipment; more use, plus lower development costs on those products equals less money spent replacing equipment until its service life is over. If products, such as prisoner partitions, have to be redesigned every three or four years – as they may now have to be, more money will be required to design and manufacture equipment that will become obsolete long before it wears out. In addition, the more of an item that is manufactured, the more ways there are to spread the related design and production costs; a smaller market means that production costs will dramatically increase the cost of a product.

As for the cars themselves, less interior space has created challenges for those who need to mount more equipment into a tighter space.

The old “B-body” Chevrolet Caprice probably best symbolized everything that was wanted and needed in a utilitarian vehicle that had to meet unusual standards: low purchase prices – depending on incentives and competitive bidding, lots of interior and trunk space, a simple powertrain – including a simple pushrod engine, and parts that were shared with millions of other GM vehicles – this meant a large, low-cost supply of parts. When GM announced in 1994 that Caprice production would end at the end of 1996, many police officers and fleet managers felt betrayed, since the Caprice had evolved into almost the perfect kind of utilitarian vehicle for the job.

In an unusual attempt to keep from losing customers, a GM spokesman tried to tell police department officials how to “replace” their Caprices: “buy Luminas for patrol work, buy Camaros for traffic enforcement, buy Trackers for transporting small prisoners and Tahoes for transporting large ones.” In other words, this individual implied that GM discontinued a car that could do the work of four other vehicles.

How many municipalities could justify supporting so many models in their fleets – especially in today’s comatose economy?

The demise of the old Caprice has created a ripple effect that is still present today. (To be continued …)

Image: Flickr data states location as Dujiangyan, Sichuan; source: Smashed Car; author: old bacon; Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license

Topics: Auto Safety, Air Bags, Regulation

About the author: Chuck Gruenwald

Born in Chicago and raised in northwest suburban Cook County, Chuck Gruenwald developed an unfavorable opinion of machine politics quite early in life. In addition to cars, electronics, law enforcement, and politics, Chuck enjoys writing, and is also a horse racing fan. He has recently written op-eds for

View all articles by Chuck Gruenwald

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