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A Closer Look at Nader, NHTSA & Airbags

— May 1, 2017

NY Times Video Report on Nader & Airbags

A good video report, published by the New York Times, explores the history of Ralph Nader’s work on airbags and auto safety up to 2014. Everyone should watch it.1

Additional Airbag History

This article provides some additional documentation and stories to provide a richer, fairer, and more complete story of the last 50 years of the war to protect people. (Note: for an even longer history see Michael R. Lemov’s book Car Safety Wars: One Hundred Years of Technology, Politics, and Death.)

Clarence Ditlow successfully fought to protect people for most of those 50 years and he described strategies and results of the Nader, government, and citizen efforts (saving 3.5 million lives) in a brief video.2

The transcript of the 1971 White House meeting of Nixon with Henry Ford II and Lee Iacocca, in which pollution and safety issues were discussed, is now available.3 These sources provide some valuable history on this important topic.

Some of My Personal Work History on Airbags

Some of my views differ with those of the GM interview in the New York Times Retro-Report based on my experience.

First, the GM engineer interview does not mention that GM had manufactured and sold dual stage inflation passenger airbags as early as 1973.4 In fact, these were the first production-level vehicles with airbags manufactured in the U.S. Only 1,000 of the 1973 Airbag Chevy Impalas were built, most of which went to government agencies.

For many years I had responsibility for protecting the historical 1973 Airbag Chevy Impala owned by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Toward the end of my service at NHTSA under the George W. Bush Administration, I was ordered to transfer the vehicle responsibility to another person in NHTSA.

You can see what NHTSA did to destroy, rather than preserve, resemblance to the original 1973. One of Mr. Bloch’s photos is shown below.

Green 1973 Airbag Chevy Impala on left with darkly painted NHTSA-modified version on the right.
Original 1973 Airbag Chevy Impala, left; NHTSA-modified version, right. Photo courtesy of Byron Bloch.

“Attached are two of my photos showing the 1973 Airbag Chevy Impala that I own, alongside the NHTSA “” rendition showing how they modified their 1973 Airbag Chevy. These two historic cars were displayed at the official NHTSA Exhibit at the 2011 ESV Conference at National Harbor in Washington, D.C. My car is in the historic GM iridescent green-gold of their original mass-production fleet of 1,000 identical cars, and to my knowledge is the last remaining example. 

Please also refer to  for further information about this 1973 Airbag Chevy and GM’s early-1970’s development program of their ACRS – Air Cushion Restraint System.” – Byron Bloch

Thanks to automotive expert, Byron Bloch, who owns and has preserved an original, and rare, 1973 Airbag Chevy Impala, one can see a video of the vehicle in action.5 The video gives a brief, but interesting history of the project.

Second, the New York Times video report description of the airbags killing children in the front passenger seat does not do justice to the tragedy of these defective airbag designs. In the mid-1990s, passenger deaths due to airbags were a major problem with which NHTSA was grappling.

At the time, I was working on airbags at NHTSA in R&D. The head of R&D, (I refer to him as BB) called a meeting of all NHTSA researchers working on airbags, about 10 of us, in his office. He said that the Administrator was concerned about the problem of airbags killing children and that we would go around the table and share what we knew. And, he noted that we had an open microphone with the NHTSA researchers in Ohio. I do not know whether any auto companies were also on the line, but I suspect there were some.

When it came to me, I said: “All airbags are not created equal.” BB stood up and shouted, “You sound just like Joan Claybrook!”

I replied that some air bags were top-mounted and some were front-mounted. The top-mounted airbags deployed upward along the inside of the windshield and then downward toward the passenger such that at the point of interaction with an occupant, it was larger like a cushion with less velocity and force. The front-mounted airbags on the other hand came straight out of the dashboard like a clenched fist aimed at the occupant and could be lethal.

BB’s anger level grew. He demanded to know how I knew this. I explained that, years earlier in 1991, a Honda paper had been published on the safety benefits of top-mounted designs to protect children. He then asked who published this paper. When I said that NHTSA had published it, BB became nearly apoplectic. He demanded that I get him a copy immediately.

The paper was published in the proceedings of the 13th ESV Conference that was held Nov. 4-7, 1991 in Paris.6

I gave a copy to BB. Then, he ended my formal responsibilities for work on airbags for the rest of the time he was in charge of R&D. But fortunately, I also gave a copy to Clarence Ditlow who then produced a report on the problem for the public. See Center for Auto Safety findings.7

Later BB went through the NHTSA Revolving Door to work directly for the auto industry.



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