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Should Car Manufacturers Install Airbag Systems or 5 Point Racing Harnesses?

Updated on May 16, 2015
Larry Rankin profile image

Larry Rankin attempts to discern the logic, or lack thereof, in various, topical social issues.

Airbags save lives. This is a point that cannot be disputed. We’ve come a long way technologically, from no seatbelts at all to a single strap around our waist to shoulder harnesses to the modern shoulder harness airbag system.

And we’ve learned a lot along the way, especially on out latest journey with the airbag. First off, that a simple idea like the deployment of a bag of air to keep us safe in a crash really isn’t so simple. For starters, quality control is an overwhelming process. With wanting to save lives comes the liability of saving lives, and the financial cost of lawsuits.

Not up for debate: the fact that airbags do save lives.
Not up for debate: the fact that airbags do save lives. | Source

Difficulties in Developing Airbag Technology

Technologically, one of the biggest hurdles was developing an extensive sensor system that would fire the airbags the instant a predetermined threshold of contact was exceeded, not to mention determining the threshold of deployment.

In addition, it turns out airbags are a real hazard for children. The result, the need for more sensors to determine if a person is large enough to benefit from an airbag, and it doesn’t stop there. We also can’t put airbags just anywhere. Backseats are designated for our little ones. This means that grownups riding in the backseat do so without the benefit of an airbag.

The True Price of Airbags

And what is the bottom line of all this technology: a hefty price tag every time our airbags go off and have to be reinstalled (an estimated cost of $1,000-6,000 dollars to give a ballpark figure), not to mention the weight added to sticker prices when we buy a car with an airbag system in the first place.

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as collateral damage. Let’s say we have fancy insurance, the full coverage variety that we pay diligently each and every month. Then one day we cross paths with a dear, our airbags deploy and then what? Most likely our handy-dandy insurance adjustor comes out and decides that the best your wonderful insurance can do is total the car out.

Is there anything beyond cosmetic problems with your car? No, just that the airbags need to be reinstalled. Well, that’s enough to send you shopping for a brand new vehicle. And think of it, what a waste. A car that isn’t even un-drivable being sold for scrap. The Mother Earth’s resources depleted as they are, and we have to completely process this hunk of metal that was our vehicle into something new. Yeah, it’s tragic from a personal standpoint, but from an ecological standpoint, it’s a catastrophe.

And there’s more. Airbags also constitute a very lucrative criminal enterprise. Chop shops take these airbags out of used cars, replace them with some manner of stuffing, and get two paydays out of the deal. And when it comes time for your airbag to save your life, it might not even be in there.

Vehicles that would have been repaired in the past are being totaled out because of airbag reinstallation costs.
Vehicles that would have been repaired in the past are being totaled out because of airbag reinstallation costs. | Source

5 Point Racing Harnesses: Could This be a Better Way?

So why am I complaining? What can be done? We know airbags save lives, so surely I’m not suggesting we do away with them and allow people to die? Of course I’m not, but I do want to explore the concept of a better way. Could it be that at some point we became so focused on the development of airbags that our thought processes became linear and we were unable to see that there is a better way?

I hypothesize that this is what happened. I don’t know for certain that I am correct, but I wish to get a discussion going, and your feedback on the matter is essential. So using the power of conjecture, let’s explore the concept that there is a better way to keep drivers safe than airbags.

Do you ever watch NASCAR or Indy racing or any of the types of auto racing out there too numerous to mention? If you watch these sports on occasion, even if you pay little attention, you probably noticed what isn’t present in any of the vehicles in these sports: airbags. Why? They prefer a different system: usually a roll cage and a 5 point safety harness.

The 5 point racing harness has actually been in place for decades to protect our children.
The 5 point racing harness has actually been in place for decades to protect our children. | Source

Racecar Seats Equiped for Housing 5 Point Racing Harnesses Don't Cost Anymore than Most Regular Car Seats

And despite driving like complete lunatics and taking risks the average driver would never take in his or her personal vehicle, the modern racecar driver rarely dies in an auto accident. What do they usually say on ESPN after they show a horrific racecar crash? “And the driver walked away.”

There are a number of reasons why roll cages are not often employed in everyday vehicles; one of the primary ones being that such a device usually necessitates the welding closed of the vehicle’s doors and one climbing through the window. Instead, modern vehicles employ crumple zones, but as impractical as roll cages for everyday vehicles might be, what about 5 point racing harnesses?

First off, they are already commonly used in everyday vehicles. What do you think that you are strapping baby into everyday? Basically, it is a racing seat and a 5 point racing harness. And they do a wonderful job of keeping our babies safe in auto accidents, especially when we consider how frail their little bodies are in comparison to that of an adult.

So why not do away with airbags and have everybody use 5 point safety harnesses? Is it expensive? My initial research says no. Such a harness is usually less than $150 per unit. A racing seat that allows for such a restraint system to be installed doesn’t seem to cost anymore than a regular seat. If these items became factory standard, they would most likely become even cheaper.

Could a technology as simple as the 5 point racing harness really be a better answer?
Could a technology as simple as the 5 point racing harness really be a better answer? | Source

What About Upkeep?

There is no upkeep. No need for tons of sensors. When you crash, you don’t have to reinstall your restraint system. It is a onetime fee, and even if for some reason you did have to replace it, you wouldn’t be looking at an unreasonable bill.

What About Versatility?

Unlike airbags, 5 point safety harnesses could be designed to accommodate every adult and child in the vehicle.

What About Safety?

As I mentioned, this is a preliminary proposal, and I want feedback from viewers, but from the safety of child seats to the increased safety of racecar driving over the years, the anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that 5 point safety harnesses are every bit as safe as airbags, not to mention that in the event of a crash you retain whatever minimal control of the vehicle that you might have. In the instance of the deployment of airbags, you lose all control of the vehicle.

And you know as soon as you open the door if a 5 point racing harness is actually there and working. With malfunctioning technology and the prevalence of certain criminal enterprises, the same can’t be said for the airbag, especially if we purchase our car secondhand, which most all of us do these days.

What About the Simplicity of Technology?

Simple technology is always the best technology if it meets the following criteria: it works as well or better than more complex technologies, it is as cheap or cheaper than more complex technologies, and it is as or less impactful on the environment than other technologies.

With the airbag we have what started as a simple idea and has evolved to such complexity, it would give the best of Rube Goldberg machines a run for its money. My working hypothesis is that the 5 point racing harness does its job comparably or better than an airbag system by simply being there and performing its one simple function.

Was the airbag really the right technology to back?
Was the airbag really the right technology to back? | Source

Other Food for Thought:

Mobility in a 5 way safety harness is not as good as with a standard seatbelt, and I’m not sure how well such devices are currently equipped to deal with society’s ever-increasing waistlines, but as far as allowing most of us to drink our sodas and fiddle with our car radios, the 5 point safety harness is likely adequate.

In addition, racecars are not built with comfort as a primary goal, but is it unrealistic to believe that a 5 point safety harness developed for everyday cars could be effective and allow for a bit more comfort?

Airbags vs. 5 Point Racing Harnesses

Airbag Rating
5PRH Rating
Moderate to Low
Occupant Mobility


Do you think a 5 point racing harness could be a better way than airbags to keep drivers safe?

See results

Final Thoughts:

The main thing I want to emphasize here is that this is just a proposal. I want to know what everyone else thinks. Are 5 point safety harnesses a better way than airbags? Are there holes in my logic? Is there a better answer out there that hasn’t been addressed?

Airbags save lives, and it is impossible to put a value on that, but what if there was a simpler and less environmentally impactful way that was just as good or better?


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