The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration should back off from its smart-airbag rule. The systems aren't foolproof and are not needed to save lives.
It seemed like a good idea in 1998 when Congress directed NHTSA to require advanced airbags to improve protection for occupants of different sizes. Something had to be done to reduce the tragic number of children that were being killed or injured by passenger-side airbags.
NHTSA produced a rule requiring smart airbag systems that detect the size, weight and position of a front-seat passenger to control or stop the bag's deployment to protect the occupant. The rule requires 20 percent of 2004-model vehicles to have smart bags, and the figure would rise to 100 percent by Sept. 1, 2006.
Unfortunately, seven of the 51 models that now have smart airbags have had sensor problems. Experts say every system has weaknesses that can prevent sensors from working properly.
Fortunately, no child has died because a sensor was fooled.
Meanwhile, child airbag deaths have fallen from 32 in 1998 to three last year and none so far this year, according to NHTSA. That's because automakers now install less powerful airbags and because more parents put their children in the rear seats.
Suppliers and automakers might be able to make smart airbags foolproof if they invest another $X million. But the simple solution is always the best.
NHTSA must remove the regulatory straitjacket and let the industry solve the problem in the best way possible.
If it requires NHTSA to go back to Congress to have the 1998 mandate rescinded, that ought to be the next step.