The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration recently mandated that Americans could not install on-off switches for auto air bags unless they get permission from the NHTSA. Explosive air-bag forces have already killed 87 people, plus they've been responsible for loss of sight and hearing. To deny people the right to decide against the minor safety gain that air bags give to seatbelts is the height of political arrogance backed up with deception.

"Williams," you say, "our public officials don't lie and deceive!" Try this. Attorney Sam Kazman, of the Washington-based Competitive Enterprise Institute, sent me a video featuring former NHTSA-head Joan Claybrook. Speaking in 1983, Claybrook said, "Because they (air bags) are hidden away in dashboards, they work automatically when a crash occurs. . . . They fit all different sizes of people, from little children up to 95 percent males, very large males. And I think that that gives more freedom and liberty than being forced to wear a seatbelt. . . . "Auto manufacturers warned NHTSA that air bags could maim. In 1969, General Motors warned that "a small child close to the instrument panel from which the air cushion is deployed may be severely injured or even killed."

Tests conducted in 1974 by Volvo showed out-of-position children could be killed or seriously injured by air bags. In her rush to control us, Claybrook dismissed these warnings as obstructionism by auto manufacturers.

Years and experience have justified auto manufacturer safety concerns. What's Claybrook's line now? Kazman's video captures Claybrook, in 1996, saying, "The bags are designed to stop a 160 pound man going 30 miles an hour . . . (auto companies) have known since 1978 that the explosive force needed to stop a man can snap the neck or injure the brain of a child." She says, "The safest place to put your child is in the back seat."

Claybrook has gone from telling us that air bags are perfect for everyone (1983) to telling us now (1996) the lie that she warned the public back then about air-bag dangers. Kazman says in his testimony before the House Subcommittee on Telecommunications, Trade and Consumer Protection on May 22, 1997: "In Hollywood it's a performance (Claybrook's lies and deception) that would be deserving of an Emmy. But this isn't Hollywood, it's Washington - and it has far more serious consequences."

Kazman played the video for Congress. You might think Congress would jump all over Claybrook. Forget it; they jumped on Kazman. Congressman Edward Markey, D-Mass., chided Kazman for bringing up the past, in his words "golden oldies." For Markey, hard evidence of lies and deception by public officials is irrelevant to congressional deliberations. I had always suspected that, but I was surprised to see my suspicions borne out.

This April's Car & Driver magazine has an article by Peter Bedard, "Just Saying No to Air Bags." According to Bedard, the law prohibits auto shops from disabling air bags; but there is no law prohibiting an owner from doing so. The article gives a step-by-step process for safe removal of air bags. In addition, there are probably Web sites featuring removal procedures. Of course, the best thing would be for air bags to become optional equipment and for Congress to leave us alone.