Mazda Safety Notice

6 August, 1997

What's wrong with this picture?

I received a letter from Mazda yesterday about the "occupant protection system". This letter praises the air bag as an "effective supplemental safety device" which has been "credited with saving more than 1,600 lives." In the very same paragraph, the letter goes on to warn how an "improperly positioned or improperly belted driver can be seriously injured or even killed during air bag deployment."

Killed?!? This is a federally mandated safety device designed to keep people alive. Yet this safety device can kill us? And Mazda's answer is to provide another safety device in the form of a sticker warning us about the dangers of the safety device. What's wrong with this picture?

1,600 lives saved over the 10 year period that airbags have been around. Compared to the billions of vehicle miles traveled over that period, it would seem the odds of being saved by this deadly "safety device" are pretty slim. If the same amount of time and money were spent on mandating driving school for all licensed drivers, the number of lives saved would probably be orders of magnitude higher than a measly 160 per year.

It should be clear from recent news reports (and confirmed by this safety campaign) that the air bag may not be all it's cracked up to be. Yet the bureaucrats responsible for protecting those-too-stupid-to-protect-themselves will not allow the automakers latitude in disabling the air bags on their customers' vehicles. Why can't they simply admit that they may have made an error and allow people to decide on their own destiny? This is no longer a case of protecting people in the interest of public safety. It's now a public relations project to prevent lawsuits while still placating the air bag proponents.

While the federal bureaucrats in Washington fight it out with the automakers, the insurance companies, and the lawyers, this author has decided to take an active step in preparing for his own personal safety. I've decided to remove the airbag from my 1990 Mazda MX-5 and replace it with a nicer, more comfortable, non-airbagged steering wheel which just might improve my driving. I feel safer as a result.

Gary Fischman

Few things we've written have generated as much debate as this editorial. Here are a couple of opinions we received in response.

Dear Gary

For once I am glad to see someone look at air bags for what they really are, a highly explosive device placed in front of a unknowing victom. For example, look at the Miata for this month. Unknowst to the driver of this car she is placed too far forward to be safe if the airbag is deploed. she should be sitting farther back, her arms should be slightly bent while grasping the stearing wheel. How many pro racing drivers do you see sitting this close to a stearing wheel in the first place. I watched the Senate hearings on this matter. Every us auto manufature who testified said that the air bags are too strong. Ford produces an air bag which deploys at a slower rate reducing the dangerous effects of air bag. I for one would like to deactivate my air bag but can't because that choice has been removed from me by federal law. Air bags should be options, not manditory.

Michael Atwood

Dear Gary

Airbags, when are they safe/dangerous ???

The airbag is safe... as long as you watch some details:

- always use seat belts: if you don't your whole body is projected to the front when in an accident. Thus your head is positioned higher than the inflated airbag and your pretty face hits the windscreen. Not nice to happen to one person as the result can be a skull fracture and most probably the need for major plastic surgery.

- when preparing an accident - the moment just before the accident happens and you hit the brakes, turn the wheel... always remember that the car manufacturer designed the airbag to be most efficient when hitting an object in a right angle. That's why the airbag is in front of the driver (and passenger). Imagine you hit an object from a slightly different angle then your body swings forward but to either the left of the right and the 'rescue' effect is minimalised. This won't kill you but won't safe you either, your body just 'glides' of the sides of the airbag.

- never put an object, eg. a small child or a rear-facing child seat, in the inflation path of the airbag. Why? This one needs some more explaining... Because the airbag really 'explodes' using a charge of compressed air and this explosion has 2 distinct moments:

primo- the 'big bang' where the bag is under pression to come out the cover and has to be filled to a certain volume

secondo- the surplus of the compressed air keeps the airbag under a (very) gentle pression for a few milliseconds.

After all compressed air is used up and the bag deflates via air escape holes. An airbag is not a balloon that keeps floating on your steering wheel - it just breaks the forward fall you make towards the steering wheel. But this process is done is just a few seconds - the initial explosion just requires a few milliseconds but.....

Remember I said that you should always wear seat belts? If you don't you fly 'uncontrolled' forwards before the airbag had time to reach its ideal volume and the airbag could still be under the force of explosion when your body is making contact. Result? the airbag could well push you backwards into you seat giving it a certain trampoline effect.

This could eventually give you tremendous headaches following the whiplash you experienced. By the way, whip lash occurs mostly when a car drives into your rear and your head flings backwards. If you hit another car in front of you make a dive forward but above described push can give you the best (or is that worst) of the frontal- and rear collision. Of course, you were so bloody stupid not to wear your seat belt in the first place.

This is where I consider children, alone or being seated in a rear-facing child seat, dangerous to themselfs as to other people. Either they are toying with the seat-belts or are already to close to the inflation path of the bag when seated in a rear-facing seat. The result will be what I called the 'trampoline' effect. That airbag keeps pushing until it has reached it's ideal volume.

Before everyone starts talking hell about exploding airbags please let me remind you that they were designed to do so. Can you imagine going through a collision which last a few seconds upon impact and the airbag taking minutes to blow up?? NO, it wouldn't work but and I just want to say it was designed to work at its best complying to certain rules.

Car manufacturers have regulations - known as safety regulations - to play along when designing the car. These regulations deal with deformable areas to absorb the impact, safety glass frontscreen, seat belts etc. It all comes down to protect the occupants when hitting an object at a certain speed. Now have those regulations always considered this should be tested by crashing a testcar straight ahead - so frontal, keep that in mind for a moment - into a wall or prepared structure.

So those ingeneers went to their computer, worked out some devices and went on to test them but always by pushing a testcar frontal into a wall. From the moment you hit an object from a different angle than the obligatory right angle the engineers can give no warranty what's so ever on the effect of the airbag. I guess the main reason why all the safety devices just or slighty better the regulations is the cost of research.

Plus the airbag is designed to work with the seat belt. In a collision the seat belt is slowing down the driver or front seat passenger while the airbag catches the 'fall'. With no seat belt your body is flung forward with a much greater force and in a wrong way as your chest will hit the steering wheel and your head cracks the screen. With a seat belt your upper body flips down while your hips should be locked in your seat.

And guess what? The seatbelt too is designed to conform to those same regulations and assumes that a grown-up person is taking the seat. Kids offen hate to use the seat belt because it is literally choking them. A seat belt was not designed to hold a rear-facing child seat but the other way around.

In fact the origin of the airbag lies in the fact that a lot of accidents ended deadly even when seat belts were worn. Sometimes the seat belt itself blocked the upper body that much that broken ribs were possible. The airbag resolves this by braking the fall of the forward tilting upperbody thus protecting the person. Car manufacturers, like Renault who pioneered this one, are now also implementing active seat belts. These act upon impact by blockking the lower part of the seat belt to restrain the movement of the lowerbody and the upper part of seat belt is built to slow the movement of the upper body. Result is that the tilting movement is ensured whereby the upper body is slowed down. Renaul claims this system can be as efficient as an airbag. Public opinion however demands (more) safety and this new system is likely to used together with other devices like airbags, side impact protection systems (Volvo), BMW's new protections to prevent the head hitting the door with a collision from the side, ....

Conclusion of it all:

Have faith in the designed safety measures but keep in mind that the designs were made to comply to obligatory safety tests at that time. The moment you are in a situation different from the safety tests there can be no warranty about the outcome. Maybe you lucky, maybe you screwed up yourself by cheating and not wearing a seat belt for instance.

Just think of this: a car doesn't kill, it's the way it's being used and you can't always control everything nor can the car manufacturer.

Oh, only one question should rise in your attentive brain after reading all of the above: How can an airbag kill someone if he/she did act along the safety rules?
Answer: it wasn't the airbag but other factors influenced the outcome in bad way.

Note: there was a safety test done around april 1997 by a european consumer organisation in which 10 small cars took part. These cars were of the small category (VW Polo, Renault Clio, Ford Fiesta, Mazda 121, Rover 100, ...) and were bought via the normal dealer channel. The cars were pushed against a massive block but were to hit it on the right front.

The results were devastating and only a few cars made a decent impression of their safety features. Most interesting thing - related to airbags in general - was however the movement of the testdummies in the crash. The videos showed the car being hit not 100% frontal but 50% frontal (right-hand side of car) and the dummies made a slightly right movement. Thus they didn't got the full effect of the airbag as they 'glided' to the right of the airbag. Still it helped a little bit and the dummies were killed :). Anyway, it showed that be 100% effective you would need an airbag the size of the whole dashboard.

PS. please use proper child seats, in preference rear seat models to strap your children safely. In a car crash everything, including children, are projected forwards and without a seat and seat belt your kid could fly through the windshield or in your back representing a huge force. I don't know what to prefer of the two but strapping the kid in the back seat is the safest - for the kid and other passengers.

(c) Kris Vandermeulen

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Dear Gary

Let me first say how much I enjoy the miata net. I recently purchased a 1994 M edition and have used the net to learn about and purchase a variety of aftermarket accesories--front bug screen, sway bars, new tires, tsi, jr cold air induction, new shocks, new exhaust, arm rest pad, cup holder, horn bumps, leather shift boot, leather brake lever boot, car cover, plastic window cleaner and polish, mazda club membership, MOSS WOOD STEERING WHEEL and matching shift knob and brake handle. That being said I find your editorial on air bags to reflect a lack of clear thinking on this issue. But hey this is a free country and you can be as right wing on any and all issues as you want to be. I just hope you don't carry a loaded unlicensed hand gun in you miata glove compartment.

I possibly owe my life to a Mazda airbag. And driving skills had nothing to do with my accident. I walked away with only a minor abrasion to the skin of my nose. My wife's Miata (a 1990) was totaled. I was driving alone on a long trip. If I had a passenger, he/she would have been seriously injured because the 1990 had no passenger side airbag. We bought a 1994 because both seats have airbags. Gee, I want two and you want none-what a country.

Your arguments about the benefits (only 160 lives saved) are specious, at best). My accident (because it did not involve another vehicle) as well as many others are not reported anywhere. How many other lives have Mazda airbags saved? How many serious injuries have Mazda airbags avoided?

While you must have the seat belt fastened--no one should drive a car like the Miata without buckeling up. Second, the Miata is not a todler transport mobile. As you know, there is no back seat and infants etc should only be transported in an approved child seat securely fastened to the rear seat.

I'm sure you believe that your new racing wheel without an airbag will give you the safety edge over your old wheel with a bag. Maybe a turbo should be mandatory safety gear as wheel--you know you can more safely pull out onto the freeway. Maybe on the weight of the logic in your editorial someone will nominate you for a Mensa membership. Maybe the Red Sox will win the world series this year.

I choose my MOSS wheel because it preserved the bag function and it really looks nice. The reason I am being somewhat ofensive here is that your editorial offends me. At least I intended my offense.

I hope for your sake and the well being of the miata net, that you do not need the bag someday. A lot of people have needed it and are glad that the Federal Government mandated its installation.

Mark Haflich

We reply:

The statistics quoted above aren't our stats - they're a quote from the letter received from Mazda and which, by the way, were also stated on the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's web site. They are the ones who published the figures.

Bottom line for us is, we would be happy if the government would simply allow people to make an informed decision regarding the airbags. Instead, the government is mandating that people sit in front of a device which they admit can be dangerous. We can't think of any other safety device or prophylactic device (including vaccine's) which are mandated and the person exposed to the potential danger is not permitted to choose not to participate.

Incidentally, folks who are willing to make an informed decision to disable their own airbag can find some interesting information at You can also read about what the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has to say about airbags. Also be sure to check out the National Motorist's Association for their opinion on the subject.

And one final counterpoint:

I'm sure if we searched long and hard enough we could find many examples of federally mandated safety requirements that have caused or contributed to fatalities. I'm actually fairly certain it would not take a lot of effort to produce these statistics, or, in the worst case, *produce* them. Seat belts would be a good example. I am certain there have been wrecks where a jammed seat-belt has contributed to a fatal accident. Common sense shows that the merits of the seat belt far outweigh the dangers that they may present in certain situations. Helmets for motorcycles would be another good example. Motorcycle riders claim that helmets reduce their visibility and hearing, and can contribute to accidents. This may be the case. But the positive returns of wearing a helmet when travelling on a two wheeled, motor driven vehicle can not be overstated. If your skull hits the pavement at 60 mph and you don't have a helmet, you're in trouble. I'd go on to say that I trust that we could find other examples of federally mandated safety equipment that has caused deaths outside the realm of personal transportation. I believe in freedom of choice and the freedom from excessive government regulation of individual and personal choices. I also think this promotes survival of the mentally fittest, as the low end of the I.Q. pool learns about the process of natural selection the hard way. But, for all my strong conservative reservations about things of this nature, I am middle of the road enough to realize that all the feds are saying is that "manufacturers *must* provide cars that meet federal safety requirements which we think are best served by passive restrain systems, supplemental restrain systems, crumple zones, etc. etc.". I want them pressuring manufacturers in this way. Have you ever been overseas or to a second or third world country and seen the vehicles over there? Today cars are better, safer, more efficient than ever before, and it is because of federal regulations saying that they must be as much as for market demand. I believe in a free market economy and it's ability to govern itself to a certain extent. But, as part of the process of a free market economy I feel that I am a more demanding consumer than the average, and I don't want to have to either a:Pay more or b:Settle for less, just because the average consumer is a moron willing to drive around in a tin can death-trap that they paid $15,000 for. I feel strongly that the far right that would abolish government regulation on all levels is just as dangerous, reactionary and likely to be wrong as the liberal left is. The big difference in my mind is that too *little* government is still a better option than *too much* government in most cases.

But, look at this with an open mind, from a critical perspective, and apply other similar situations to this scenario. Are seat belt laws a good idea or a bad idea? Remember all the fuss about people fearing being trapped in a burning, overturned or submerged vehicle? How often does this happen compared to how many lives seat belts save? Isn't the airbag a similar situation? Unless you are under 5'4" or 115 pounds, I cannot understand your irrational fear of a device that statistically is much, much, *much* more likely to save your life than to take it.

Donovan Colbert

Copyrightę 1997, Eunos Communications