The Best Policy

Killer Air Bags

More misadventures in the quest for perfect safety.

Is nothing sacred? Worse yet, is nothing safe?

Last week we learned that air bags–air bags, once the Holy Grail of consumer activists, the fond hope of every worried parent–are dangerous to your health. Not only are they no sure-fire protection against the hazards of driving, but they may even be kid killers! Automakers rushed warnings to owners of air-bag-equipped cars. The tort bar has, no doubt, been placed on Red Alert.

Who is to blame for the air-bag debacle?

We are, of course. We, the American public, tireless in our pursuit of the costless benefit, loath to accept the randomly aimed slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, ever ready to shift the blame for our own laziness or carelessness to someone else–preferably someone with deep pockets. We were easy prey for the safety crusaders who argued in the 1970s and ‘80s that drivers and their passengers could not be expected to buckle their seat belts and shoulder belts, and that the recalcitrant car companies should be required to install “passive restraints.”

T he economics profession lent strength to the activists’ arguments. One widely quoted 1987 study emanating from the Brookings Institution proclaimed that seat belts–to all appearances, a low-cost and effective way to keep people from flying through the windshield–actually failed the test of cost/benefit analysis. What all appearances neglected to consider, but the Brookings study did not, was the 2.97 seconds that it takes, on average, to fasten a seat belt. (For an instructive sample of these economists’ arcane divinations,.)

Adding up all these precious seconds and a few other minor costs over the life of the car, the economists concluded that the total cost of using seat belts exceeds the benefits by some $1,193. By contrast, the authors stated, the relatively expensive and unproven air bags would net annual benefits of $2.4 billion to $6.2 billion. From this, they concluded that mandatory seat-belt laws were ill-advised.

M eanwhile, the automakers grew tired of being labeled “liars and killers,” as one company spokesperson puts it. Aware that consumers didn’t like the automated seat belts that were the only alternative for meeting the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s “passive restraint” standards, the companies finally jumped on the air-bag bandwagon. By 1993, the air bag was a staple of the industry, four years before federal law makes dual air bags mandatory in all new cars. The car companies had long argued that air bags were only effective if the hated seat belts were also worn (the bags are already marked “SR,” for supplemental restraint, if anyone bothers to look). But somehow, those warnings grew fainter as air-bag enthusiasm mounted.

So now we have several years of actual experience with air bags. And what does the record show? Since 1985, more than 650,000 air bag “deployments” have occurred and, by NHTSA count, 1,136 lives have been saved. But at what price? The industry puts the cost of an air bag installed in a new car at about $500, not including “engineering spillovers,” such as dashboard and steering-wheel redesign. At $500 a car, the total cost (to the consumer–not the car companies, who pass the cost along) of installing even one air bag in each of the 35 million-plus cars now so equipped is about $18 billion, to date, and the cost per life saved is close to $16 million.

Of course, as car men–no less than consumer advocates–now hasten to add, the value of a human life is infinite, which makes $16 million a bargain. But what, then, about the value of the lives that air bags have taken? As many as 30 children–16 in just the last year–are reported to have been killed by air bags in accidents that otherwise would not have been fatal. Nineteen adults as well, most of whom were 5 feet 2 inches or shorter (a fact that hits this writer close to home). Surely these lives were of infinite value too, which means that, by the peculiar arithmetic of infinity, the costs as well as the benefits of air bags are beyond measure. (Of course, if we truly believed the value of human life was limitless, we’d ban motor vehicles–which account for about 40,000 deaths a year–altogether.)

Quite apart from their costs, however, there’s a real question whether air bags, on balance, save any lives at all. Two economists at Virginia Commonwealth University–yes, here are the economists again, but this time making a more plausible argument–studied millions of auto-accident claims filed between 1989 and 1993. They found that drivers of air-bag-equipped cars initiate a disproportionate number of crashes involving fatalities, and that, as a result, the occupants of such cars are at considerably higher risk than those in cars without air bags. It’s not that air bags don’t work. It’s that when people feel that their chances of being injured are reduced, they drive more recklessly. It’s called “offset behavior.”

Reducing drunken driving by 5 or 6 percent, for that matter, could save more lives in one year than have been saved by air bags in their near-decade of deployment. But that, of course, would require a considerable sacrifice from a substantial part of the citizenry. Which brings us back to where we began: Human nature–or, at least, human nature as it has evolved in our American times.

To be fair, the public does seem to have wised up a lot. While consumer activists pump for another technological fix–“smart” air bags that can adjust their behavior to the stature of front-seat passengers–more and more of us (perhaps influenced in part by mandatory seat-belt laws in 49 states) are squandering those 2.97 precious seconds and buckling up. The industry now plans to strengthen warnings that children should be kept, appropriately harnessed, in the back seat, where they will be neither helped nor harmed by air bags. The car companies also hope to convince NHTSA that slower-inflating air bags would provide almost as much protection and far less risk than posed by the current standard–as long as seat belts are also worn.

There is a lesson here for policy-makers who hope that the public will be easily led to make modest sacrifices for the common good (or even for their individual good)–such as accepting controls on medical usage to limit the runaway costs of medical care. Americans don’t like to be constrained, whether physically or in our choices. And sometimes, we are willing to pay a very high price–measured not just in dollars, but in the currency of lives–for that freedom.