Time to buy a car that’ll be used by my son, a new driver. Here we have the intriguing but rarely discussed intersection of safety, cost, and coolness factors. As for most parents, the safety of my kids is my top priority. However like most parents I won’t be seeking the single safest vehicle available for my new driver. Rather I’ll balance various concerns according to behavior formulas I do not understand and hope for the best. At times like these I wish there were simple programs for a family decision maker to allocate risk rationally, but I doubt you could make money on them. I don’t think evolution prepared humans much for allocating long term risks and rewards. It would be nice, for example, to see if the substantial risks associated with bicycling swamp out the differences in risks between a car with and without airbags. ie can I get the same “safety boost” I get with airbags by just having my son foresake a few hours of bike riding or other “riskier than driving” behavior.
Here’s a summary of some old Natl Transportation Safety Data from OK Police (I couldn’t find more recent data or the direct source at NHTSA.
Air bags save lives. Air bags in passenger cars and light trucks prevented an estimated 1,136 fatalities from 1986 to 1995, with another 600 saved in 1996. Once these life saving devices are equipped in all cars, it is estimated that 3,000 lives will be saved each year.
Driver-Side Air Bags
Driver-side air bags reduce the overall fatality risk of car drivers by a statistically significant 11 percent.
In other words, a fleet of cars equipped with driver-side air bags will have 11 percent fewer driver fatalities than the same cars would have had if they did not have air bags. Still, air bags can be dangerous to short stature adults sitting too close to the air bag module, especially when unbuckled.
Passenger-Side Air Bags
Passenger-side air bags reduce the overall fatality risk of car passengers age 13 and older by a statistically significant 13.5 percent.
It is estimated that an additional 88 right front passengers ages 13 and older would have died from 1986 to 1995 if passenger cars or light trucks had not been equipped with passenger-side air bags.
To date only one passenger, a 98-year-old female, has died as the result of an adult passenger-side air bag-related injury.
MORE: Here’s more data including a study (see left side of page) that suggests over 12,000 deaths from US state’s failures in more aggressively implementing seat belt laws. If we assume these folks are worth 2.7 million each as the transportation department likes to do, then in simple terms it would have been worth 12000 x 2.7 million = 32.4 billion dollars to prevent these deaths. Assuming EPA’s higher value of life number we get even more life bang from our bucks by getting people to buckle up, which is one of the cheapest ways to save lives. The cheapest of all for USA life saving, if I recall correctly from a study printed in the book “The Skeptical Environmentalist”, is increasing the use/quality of smoke detectors in buildings and homes. For life saving on a global scale I think it’s oral rehydration therapy or mosquito nets, which at .15 per dose / 2.50 per net are quite the deal if you see *human life* as the thing we should be optimizing for as we allocate limited resources to big problems.