As Ford and GM continued to test their airbags, they found that they performed well — but with airbag-equipped vehicles seven deaths occurred in accidents nonetheless and one, that of an unrestrained infant, was blamed on airbags. It didn't help, either, that in 1974 closely-held results from a Volvo study made their way into the U.S. debate about airbags. In that study two dozen baby pigs (roughly the same size and weight of children aged 3-6) were anesthetized, situated 4-6 inches from airbags, and strapped into cars going less than 25 mph. When the cars crashed, only three pigs escaped without serious injuries. Most succumbed from serious heart and lung damage.
Still, in 1974, GM (which enjoyed a competitive advantage over Ford in airbag production) began making some Cadillacs, Oldsmobiles, and Buicks with optional airbags. Edward Cole, GM president from 1969 to 1974, had initially wanted to test airbags in 150,000 cars but when the 1973 oil crisis came along and pumped gas prices sky high, it was hard to convince consumers to lay out more cash for safety features. After three years' experience with optional airbags and total sales of a little more than 10,000, GM reverted to type (claiming that safety didn't sell) and dropped the poorly-selling feature.
Ford, still smarting from its malfunctioning test airbags, threw their weight behind an alternate solution. Iacocca focused instead on an "interlock seat belt". Until drivers and front-seat passengers had buckled up, their cars wouldn't start. Of course, if drivers had groceries, building supplies, or their pet dog in the front seat, they, too, had to be buckled in before the car would start. Although NHTSA had mandated interlock seat belts for all 1974 model cars, it didn't take long for Congress to react to a steady stream of consumer complaints and pass legislation outlawing the interlock belts.
From that seat belt rebellion, Transportation Secretary William Coleman had learned to throttle back a little when introducing new safety measures. In 1976, saying airbags could save 12,000 lives a year, he proposed a test program to include airbags in 400,000 cars.
Only months thereafter, however, Carter took office and appointed Joan Claybrooke the Director of the NHTSA. She had different ideas. She cancelled the Coleman test plan and pushed hard for mandatory airbags. By June 1975, she had set a rule in place requiring car manufacturers to include passive restraint protection in all 1984 model passenger cars. Although industry testers warned airbags could actually harm smaller car occupants and a report from Charles J. Kahane, one of her own agency statisticians, stated that data did not support the claim that airbags could reduce frontal crash fatalities by 55%, Claybrooke pressed on. When, in 1979, the General Accounting Office also warned that airbags could injure out-of-position occupants and GM notified NHTSA it would not offer optional passenger airbags on its 1981 models (as originally planned) because of potential injury to unrestrained small children, Claybrooke persisted, saying the evidence was fragmentary and speculative. She saw saving multiple lives as outweighing the risk to small women (under 5'4") and children.
While the standoff between manufacturers and government regulators continued here, in Europe Mercedes-Benz and others were developing their airbag concepts. Mercedes-Benz began its work on airbags in 1967 but it was Professor Guntram Huber who took the lead in researching and perfecting their airbag. During the sixties and seventies he visited the U.S. a number of times, attending Congressional hearings and talking with safety regulators. The voices of German drivers, however, echoed those in the U.S. who weren't keen on airbags that made a lot of noise and smelled bad when they went off, nor did those drivers feel good about putting fireworks into a car's interior. Still, developers continued in the belief that airbags could be perfected. Mercedes was talking with American firms, largely because they had already developed considerable expertise. They got in touch with U.S. companies involved in missile technology to obtain sample gas generators even as they had a German chemical firm, Bayern Chemie, work on developing a similar German product. They also learned about discharged gas for missiles from the German military and they partnered with Bosch on development of a sensor. After the 1974 fatal accident in the U.S. involving the unrestrained infant occurred, many American researchers jumped right off the airbag bandwagon, halting research and development activity and leaving Mercedes pretty much on its own. In 1980 Mercedes introduced airbags as an option on the high-end S-class saloon— and they began to export their technology internationally. Their system used pre-tensioners on seat belts to reduce impact forces before the airbag deployed. For some of their 1985 models airbags were made standard equipment.
Once Carter was out of office and the anti-regulatory Reagan administration took hold, Transportation Secretary Drew Lewis, in 1981, delayed the passive restraint mandate by a year and tried to rescind the mandate completely. The Supreme Court, however, ruled against that notion. So, the Transportation Department gave manufacturers another way out, saying that if, within two years, a sufficient number of states passed laws requiring seat belt use, passive restraints would not be necessary. Car manufacturers lobbied states hard but maybe not hard enough; the numbers just weren't there two years later and the requirement for passive restraints stood. Reagan's second Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole did manage, in 1984, to extend the deadline another year, giving manufacturers until 1986 to phase in passive safety restraints. Then, in 1986 the NHTSA okayed auto makers to include only driver airbags through the 1990 model year— and followed that a year later with authorization to utilize driver-only airbags until the 1994 model year.-
Car manufacturers began to get with the program. Though, in 1983, AMC had called the airbag "one of the most dangerously misunderstood devices" ever offered customers, their opposition did not stand long. Ford offered airbags on its 1984 Tempo and, by 1986, offered driver's side airbags on the Mercury Topaz, as well. GM started to take another look at adding airbags to its cars, too. And despite Lee Iacocca's 1984 assertion that the airbag solution was worse than the problem and, later in the eighties, railing against them in his autobiography, in 1988, Chrysler was first to offer airbags as standard equipment. "Who says you can't teach an old dog new tricks?," read the ads. So what changed Iacocca's mind? He claimed to have seen the light, acknowledging the airbag's value— but public concern with automotive safety may have been the larger game changer. Manufacturers worried that failure to provide airbags could result in lost sales. By 1989, Ford announced it would offer airbags in nine of its car lines. International manufacturers were delivering airbag systems, as well. Porsche's 1986 944 Turbo was the first car to come equipped with airbags standard for driver and front seat passenger. In 1987 the Japanese Honda Legend came with optional airbags and in 1989, Saab included airbags as standard equipment on its Turbo 900.
As manufacturers rallied to produce airbags, an outside group committed to establishing quality standards for seat belts changed its name to expand its interests to include airbags. Founded in 1965 as the American Seat Belt Council, in 1988 it became the Automotive Occupant Restraints Council. With New York in the lead, states also began to enact legislation requiring insurance companies to reduce annual insurance premiums for cars equipped with airbags.
In 1991, Congress passed legislation— the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act— requiring that all new cars for sale in the United States be equipped with airbags for driver and front seat passenger by 1997. The same requirement kicked in for the 1999 model year of vans and light trucks. The die was cast.
Oh, there were still reports of accidents in which women and children were killed rather than restrained by airbags. And in October 1991 NHTSA's experts toured the Big Three to learn what they could about discoveries from accident reports where airbags had been in use. Chrysler and Ford said they were satisfied with those results and saw no need for design changes but GM was seriously concerned about the burst out force of the bags. GM assured the NHTSA experts, however, that it was on course to meet the 1997/8 NHTSA deadlines— with no changes. By 1992, most manufacturers had airbags on the driver side, airbags television commercials showed deploying as billowy clouds. By the mid-nineties manufacturers also offered airbags for the front passenger side, and vendors began offering after-market retrofits with the crash sensor in the steering wheel for many different earlier car models. The march to produce airbags continued.
But all was not well. Initial stubborn resistance to include airbags had meant a later rush to meet deadlines. Airbags had not been tested adequately and by 1996 the federal government acknowledged that airbags could kill women and children. Federal Motor Vehicle Safety standard (FMVSS) 208 set a minimum compliance standard requiring that manufacturers certify airbags would not injure 5'9" crash test dummies. While the minimum was intended as a floor, manufacturers took it as a ceiling. The government encouraged manufacturers to protect vehicle occupants of all shapes and sizes and to conduct tests when occupants were out of position, i.e., unbelted, sitting close to the dash, leaning up against the side window, etc. What testing was done confirmed the dangers to small-sized occupants. In fact, in the years since airbags have been in use— and despite the multiple lives they've saved— they have at time resulted in secondary injuries including abrasions, arm fractures, blindness, brain damage, even decapitations.