Airbags: Yesteryear's outrage becomes this year's boast

Rick Kranz is product editor for Automotive News.

It wasn't too long ago that a vehicle with 10 airbags was likely a luxury model.

Not any more.

The 2012 Chevrolet Sonic will have 10 standard airbags, and the subcompact's sticker price is jut $14,495, including freight.

Also standard: stability control, traction control and antilock brakes, making the Sonic quite a safety value.

I came across some stories about airbags from the February 1971 pages of Automotive News. Airbags had the industry up in arms back then.

Airbags first became available in fleets during the 1970s and started to go mainstream on some vehicles in the '80s. But it was not until over a decade later that airbags were mandatory.

Back in February 1971, the pages of Automotive News were filled with stories about an upcoming government regulation that would require two airbags in each car, one for the driver and one for the passenger. The automakers vigorously fought the regulation.

Today the comments against airbags seem ridiculous, but back then General Motors, Ford Motor Co. and Chrysler Corp. were dead serious.

For example:

  • GM President Edward Cole said was no need for airbags. GM engineers were working on improvements in interior design, padding, windshields and steering columns. The improvements would provide for passenger survival in 30-mph barrier crashes without an airbag. Of course, a seat belt was mandatory.
  • Ford CEO Henry Ford II was totally opposed to airbags as passive restraints and regarded them as more of a joke than a practical proposition.
  • L.C. Lundstrom, GM's director of automotive safety engineering, spoke on the merits of using a seat belt instead of offering an air bag. Lundstrom said that accident studies (he didn't name which studies) indicate no occupants have been killed while wearing a seat and a shoulder belt, except in crashes so severe that the vehicle was ripped open. The story, written in 1971 went on to say that 30 percent of drivers used a seat belt and less than 4 percent used the lap belt.
  • Sidney Terry, Chrysler's vice president of safety and emissions, expressed the fear of an inadvertent firing of an airbag, causing loss of control or causing the driver to have heart attack.

Fortunately, the government prevailed. Countless lives have been saved by airbags, and the technology has reduced the severity of many injuries.

I'm sure that back in 1971 no one anticipated the proliferation of airbags per vehicle, let alone 10 in what they likely would perceive as a lowly subcompact.

Of course, no one makes a lowly subcompact anymore.

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