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Which Would You Rather Have: A Seat Belt or an Air Bag?

A number of readers, in light of our recent column on car seats vs. seat belts for kids, have asked my views on seat belts and air bags for adults. So let me ask you a question: if you could only have one or the other, would you go for the seat belt or the air bag.

It turns out the answer is easy, and my views on this one are much less controversial than on car seats. With Jack Porter, a professor at
Wisconsin, I wrote a paper published four years ago that looks at the effectiveness of seat belts and air bags for adults. We found that wearing a seat belt reduced the chance of death by 60-70 percent across all crashes. We estimated that air bags reduce the death rate by 15 percent in frontal crashes, but don’t help in partial frontal, side, or rear crashes. (The benefits we found for adults in seat belts were higher than most previous research, and the results on air bags were lower than in most earlier research. But there is nobody who knows the data who would prefer an airbag to a seat belt if it was an either/or choice.)

The bottom line is that to save a life with a seat belt costs $30,000; to save a life with an air bag costs $1.8 mm by our estimates. This makes seat belts an incredibly effective safety innovation. While in comparison, air bags look bad, indeed in the scheme of things $1.8 mm to save a life is pretty good by regulatory standards.

Along the way in doing this research, we also were able to dispatch with an urban legend. I have heard people say a number of times how drunks manage to survive crashes better than sober people, which has led ER docs to hypothesize that having alcohol in your system relaxes you and allows you to better absorb the blow of the crash. It may surprise you that drunks really are more likely to survive crashes. But the reason isn’t that they are “loose,” it is that the person who makes a mistake in a crash often rams the front of their car into the side of the innocent person’s vehicle. And for survival purposes you would much rather be the one ramming another vehicle than the one getting broadsided.

Speaking of urban legends, anyone know where we can find OrangeJello, LemonJello, and Shithead? Seriously, we want to talk to them.