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Air bag's history shows slow adoption and government regulation

There are many features in automobiles that we take for granted. Before power steering, for instance, it was incredibly difficult to turn the wheels of a vehicle while stopped or while driving at low speeds. Using hydraulics to increase steering power both improved performance and safety.

We also take other safety features for granted, including seat belts and air bags. It may be hard for younger Americans to imagine a time when vehicles didn't have air bags, but universal air bag laws went into effect less than 20 years ago. On this week in 1998, the final phase of a federal law went into effect mandating that front air bags be installed in all new cars and light trucks. That law, by the way, was the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act of 1991.

The gap between passage of the law and full implementation seems larger than it needed to be. But the full history of the air bag shows that this critical safety device was ignored and underutilized long before the 1990s.

According to, the air bag for motor vehicles was first patented in 1953, and was based on inflatable covers that protected Navy torpedoes. The patent holder tried to get the attention of the major American automakers, but none were interested. The technology would remain obscure for another 12 years.

Here's a brief timeline of events after that:

  • 1965: Air bags are discussed and endorsed in a book by Ralph Nader, making more Americans aware of their existence
  • 1966: Congress passes a law mandating that seatbelts be put in all new cars (but not air bags)
  • 1970s: Air bags start to be installed in some vehicles made by Ford and General Motors, but questions arise about whether air bags themselves could be harmful when deploying
  • 1970s and 1980s: Air bag technology continues to improve and more auto manufacturers offer them as features in their cars. More Americans also begin to wear seatbelts, which greatly reduce crash fatality rates when paired with air bags
  • 1991: Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act is passed

Government regulation often lags far behind advancements in auto technology, and air bags are a good example. How many more lives could have been saved if automakers saw the value of these devices sooner and if legislators had worked more quickly to make them mandatory?

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