Seatbelt-wearing occupants of motor vehicles experience a death rate that is half that of nonbelted occupants, yet fewer than 10 percent of the population regularly wear their seatbelts. The potential of effective passenger-restraint systems to substantially reduce mortality and disability has led the federal government to consider requiring all new vehicles to come equipped with restraint systems that take effect without active participation from the passenger–airbags or automatic seatbelts. Since 1969, the government has issued several rulemakings to that effect, but each has been delayed or rescinded, the result of an ongoing debate about the policy's wisdom. Political and economic interests are at stake, as are matters of principle; and disputes over basic facts remain unresolved.

Both advocates and opponents of a mandatory passive-restraint requirement agree that restraints can prevent deaths and disabilities, though there are differences of opinion as to the degree of protection afforded. Opponents of the requirement concentrate their substantive concerns on the propensity of the public to disconnect passive belts and the reluctance of prospective car buyers to pay the additional cost that airbags would entail. Cost-benefit analyses of a passive-restraint requirement find the requirement socially desirable; but they fail to take distributional issues into account, and several of their assumptions have been challenged by the automobile industry, the only major organized opposition to the requirement.

This paper examines the central issues and evidence in the debate, including a consideration of alternative means of achieving effective, efficient passenger restraint.

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