Harvard’s John Graham Releases Results of Cost-Benefit Analysis of Air Bag Safety

Full text of testimony on line

Story posted March 25, 1997.

By Amy Charlene Reed, RiskWorld staff
E-mail to: reed@tec-com.com.

March 25, 1997 -- One of the nation’s leading risk assessors in automobile safety issues may once again have a profound impact on vehicle drivers and passengers across the United States.

Director John Graham of the Harvard Center for Risk Analysis, whose earlier research was a factor that led to a law requiring air bags in new vehicles, testified this month that his most recent cost-benefit analysis of vehicle air bags found serious problems with passenger-side air bags. [See full text of testimony.]

In his testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board, Graham said that "recent field experience has tempered my enthusiasm for this technology." His research shows that the safety benefits of passenger-side air bags were overstated in earlier analyses and that "they appear to kill more children than they save." Driver-side air bags, in comparison, have "proven to be a useful safety device with a cost-effectiveness ratio that is comparable to other well-accepted measures in preventive medicine," he said.

The preliminary results of the study, which will be published in a peer-reviewed scientific journal sometime this summer, found that for driver-side air bags, the net cost is about $70,000 per quality-adjusted life year saved compared to manual seat belts. The net cost for dual-front air bags is $399,000 per quality-adjusted life year saved compared to driver-side air bags.

Titled "The Cost-effectiveness of Airbags by Seating Position," the study is co-authored by Graham, Kim Thomas, Maria Segui-Gomez, Sue Goldie, and Milton Weinstein, all of the Harvard School of Public Health.

During his testimony, Graham also presented the results of a national survey of 1,000 randomly sampled Americans regarding their opinions about air bags. "The survey demonstrates that we, in the safety community, have created a falsely positive image of the air bag in the public’s mind," Graham said. "The vast majority of Americans have an unqualified enthusiasm about this technology that is not supported by the scientific evidence."

The survey found that the majority of respondents mistakenly believed that air bags save the lives of more children than they kill, that it is safe for an 11-year-old to sit in the front seat, and that the risk of air bag-induced injury to a driver is minimal if a driver wears a seat belt properly. In fact, the survey’s technical comments note that air bags kill more children than they save according to the "best available evidence," that children under the age of 12 should sit in the rear seat, and that the use of a seat belt does not eliminate injuries from air bags.

The survey, titled "The Airbag’s Teflon Image: A National Survey of Knowledge and Attitudes," was jointly sponsored by the Center for Risk Analysis and the Injury Control Center of the Harvard School of Public Health.

Graham, who also is a professor of policy and decision sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health in addition to being the founding director of the university’s risk center, first began analyzing air bag safety in the 1980s. His cost-benefit analysis of air bag technology was cited in pro-air bag decisions by both the U.S. Supreme Court and former U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elizabeth Dole.

He also is known for Harvard’s Lifesaving Priorities Project, which produced a computerized data base on the relative costs and effectiveness of 500 lifesaving policies in medicine, injury prevention, and toxin control, and for his work in introducing risk analysis into the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990.

Links to Related Documents

Full text of John Graham’s March 17 testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board’s Supplemental Restraint Panel

Full text of John Graham’s March 19 testimony before the National Transportation Safety Board’s Effectiveness Panel

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