Big 4 oppose bags for '77
NHTSA would require light trucks and multipurpose vehicles to have passive restraints two years later.
The battle continued, and the manufacturers won another round. There were no airbags in 1977 cars.
Chrysler Corp. told NHTSA flatly that it could not install airbags before 1979. GM called the proposal 'unreasonable,' 'inappropriate' and 'not practical.'
Ford Motor Co. said the lap and shoulder belts should not be abandoned for a system 'whose performance in the real world is essentially unknown and for which substantially greater life-saving performance can't be realistically predicted.' American Motors argued that the test dummy was not appropriate.
Cost was a big factor in the automakers' opposition. Ford said a combined lap belt and airbag system would cost $330 per vehicle; Chrysler said it would be $370.
Product liability was another consideration. A person injured in an airbag explosion would not sue the government agency that mandated the device; he or she would sue the auto company that installed it.
NHTSA's 1977 mandate did not fly, and airbags entered an in-and-out era. In 1976, the secretary of Transportation killed the passive-restraint demand when automakers agreed to install some airbags voluntarily. A year later, a new secretary decreed that all cars must have airbags or passive belts by 1984.
In September 1979, GM made an announcement that has become extremely significant. GM said it would not offer passenger airbags on 1981 models as planned because of 'potential for risk of injury to unrestrained small children.'
In 1981, NHTSA canceled the passive restraint standard, and in 1983 the Supreme Court said, 'You can't do that!'
The comedy of errors began winding down in 1988 and 1989 when Chrysler and Ford announced that driver airbags would be standard in all or some of their domestic cars.
And in December 1991, President Bush signed a law that required an airbag phase-in to begin in the 1994 model year. Deadlines for passenger bags were 1998 models for cars and 1999 models for trucks.
End of story? Unfortunately, no. As airbags became common, GM's 1979 fear became a reality. Airbags were killing small adults and out-of-position children.
The industry is fighting that with 'smart' airbags that sense the size of the passenger and new airbags that explode more slowly and with less force.