THE AUTOMOBILE airbag is back. Just as congressional efforts to ease the requirements for its use were coming to a head, General Motors announced an engineering breakthrough allowing it to offer the safety device on some 1982 cars.
Volumes have been written about airbags over the last decade. Depending on whose view you accept, airbags are: 1) the greatest idea in years, 2) a technological impossibility, 3) an unnecessary infringement on the inherent right of every automobile owner to live dangerously, or 4) a costly accessory that car owners do not want and sould not have to buy.
GM's announcement should slow down the drive in Congress to prevent the Department of Transportation from enforcing some of the safety standards adopted in the past. Those standards require auto maker to begin installing passive restraint systems (airbags or automatic seat and shoulder belts) on some 1982 models. If GM can meet the standards, surely the other auto makers can too -- although there is an argument that the standard should be waived for models that are being phased out.
The other (nontechnical) objections to the airbags were heard and disposed of years ago. The decision then was that the additional protection these devices would offer (if they could be made to work satisfactorily) outweighed their disadvantages.
That decision does not need to be reconsidered. The airbag controversy has gone on too long as it is. GM's announcement that airbags are feasible ought to end it.