Mimsy Were the Borogoves

Mimsy Were the Technocrats: As long as we keep talking about it, it’s technology.

Back Seat Baby: Have airbags become a Rube Goldberg machine?

Jerry Stratton, April 10, 2019

Steam power tooth extraction: “Teeth painless extracted by steam power.”; Rube Goldberg machines; pigeon dancing

It’s perfectly safe… as long as you take all the proper precautions. (Wellcome Images L0015008, CC-BY-4.0)

Perhaps the best example of a deceptively useful prescriptive mandate is the airbag mandate. That cars with airbags are safer than cars without airbags, for the most part, is undeniable. It is also not the right comparison. The right comparison is between airbags and what we would have if airbags were not mandated. Airbags take up a lot of space and resources that could be used for other safety features. The more I learn about the amount of resources airbags use in cars, and how much effort is necessary to keep them from causing injuries, the more it seems likely that they monopolize space and effort that could be used to create a far safer and more effective safety mechanism.

Take a serious look at what airbags cost in terms of space, weight, and design. Look at all the places and parts that airbags occupy in your car. Look at all the behavioral changes we’ve needed to make to avoid being hurt by them. To a large extent, cars today are airbags with extra features attached. So much of a car’s design is, how can we fit a car around these airbags? Your dashboard is no longer a feature in your car; it is something to be avoided. You can’t put your feet up: if the airbag deploys it will smash your feet into your face, turning a minor accident into a deadly one.

Airbags are designed to turn themselves off if there’s a kid in the front seat. When airbags deploy on short people, they kill. It’s so dangerous that it is now illegal in some states for young children to be in the front passenger seat. Short people are encouraged to ride in the back no matter how old they are.

Which may make you wonder about short drivers. Sure enough, short drivers need to do all sorts of things, from adding extenders to the controls, so as to not sit too close to the airbags, to asking permission from the government to turn airbags off.

Do you read books or tablets in the front passenger seat while someone else is driving? That’s also not recommended. You should do that in the back seat. In the case of an airbag deployment, that book or tablet becomes a projectile. The airbag will deploy it into your face, stomach, chest, neck… God help you if you’re writing with a pen or pencil, or handling some other vaguely pointed object.

You’re not even supposed to have anything in your pocket.

Sometimes the airbag’s parts are the killer. The amazing thing about the Takata recall was not that it happened, but that it took so long for something like it to happen. In order to inflate fast enough to make a difference in a crash, airbags are explosives.

At the heart of the problem is the airbag’s inflator, a metal cartridge loaded with propellant wafers, which in some cases has ignited with explosive force. If the inflator housing ruptures in a crash, metal shards from the airbag can be sprayed throughout the passenger cabin—a potentially disastrous outcome from a supposedly life-saving device.

A premature explosion is dangerous, especially if the reason for the premature explosion is that the parts have started to degrade. Much of this is difficult to get around. As plastics and metals age, they lose strength and become brittle. This makes a premature explosion both more likely and more dangerous. It can’t be good for a well-timed explosion, either. There isn’t a lot of room for error in an explosive device designed to expand between the start of a crash and before your head moves too far forward. Anything unexpected is dangerous. That even means who it was tested on.

Bureaucrats aren’t scientists. The original mandates, it turns, out, required only a single, average height for testing. Before the mandate, one of the reasons that carmakers delayed putting airbags in cars was because “the airbags were giving child-sized crash test dummies what would have been fatal blows.” Bureaucrats aren’t trained to disprove their theories, they’re trained to defend their bureaucracies. Which is part of why short people, and to a lesser extent, tall people, need to be even more careful than the rest of us to avoid injury from airbags. But it’s only part of why. Even with a wider variety of testing, it’s hard to see how a system this fragile will be able to handle wide variations safely. Not much room for error also means not much room for variation.

There are also explosive devices built into the front seats, because your seat belts need to tighten to keep you from pitching forward, even a little, while the airbag is exploding toward you. Without these pretensioners, airbags are so dangerous that they disarm themselves if the pretensioners look like they’re failing. Think about that for a moment. If, during a crash, the system detects that your seat belts might be failing, it also turns off the airbags. This is 180 degrees from what we were originally promised airbags could do.

Airbags aren’t just the classic example of a prescriptive mandate. They’re a classic example of the kind of Rube Goldberg systems bureaucrats design in order to avoid changing their minds.

Auto manufacturers were pilloried for taking so long to get on board with airbags. Given how complex airbag systems have become to keep them from killing people, I’m beginning to think they were right. Carmakers installed airbags before the mandate, in the way that they should have: first testing, then installing in some models and seeing how people respond to their presence, usefulness, and drawbacks. The mandate short-circuited this process, forcing them in all models, probably more quickly than they should have. And now the mandate keeps us from trying something new. There’s no room for anything else.

The systems that bureaucrats design don’t take into account design costs in the same way that consumers do—and I mean cost in terms of lost opportunity for safer solutions as much as cost in terms of money. Whether it’s stamping every part on an assembly line with a unique number, or designing a safety feature that, when deployed, can total the vehicle, it isn’t just that the costs aren’t taken into account. They aren’t the bureaucracy’s costs.

Looking at the contortions we go through to put up with their dangers, it’s difficult to believe that airbags are the best solution. The contortions seem to increase in complexity every year. But airbags are the mandated solution, and so they crowd out new ideas. We have no idea what we’re missing, but it’s hard to believe we’re not missing something safer, simpler, and easier to deal with.

Again, I’m not arguing that airbags aren’t an improvement over nothing. They almost certainly are, at least for the kind of people airbag testing has in mind. But they are almost certainly not an improvement over what we would have had if cars weren’t mandated to fill their spaces with airbags, and conform so many aspects of their design and recommended use around airbag storage, airbag deployment, and airbag failure.

Bureaucracy defends the status quo long past the time when the quo has lost its status. — Laurence J. Peter (Peter’s Quotations: Ideas for Our Time)

In response to The plexiglass highway: Government bureaucracies can cause anything to fail, even progress.

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