Press Releases

1997 Releases

Survey of Americans Shows Use and Safety of Air Bags Misunderstood

For immediate release: March 17, 1997 

Boston, MA--Despite recent news reports that highlight the danger for young children of passenger side airbags, Americans overwhelmingly favor the use of of airbags. However, their support is based on a variety of misperceptions about their use and safety. The findings come from a survey reported today by the Center for Risk Analysis at the Harvard School of Public Health.

The survey was designed by investigators of the Center for Risk Analysis at Harvard School of Public Health. The survey was administered to 1,000 Americans in 48 states by a survey research firm, the weekend of February 28-March 2, 1997. All those surveyed are licensed to drive a motor vehicle.

Although respondents recognized that the air bag can save lives, they were unclear about the scope of injuries, both mild and serious, caused by airbags. Almost 60% of respondents are under the mistaken impression that more children have been saved by airbags than have been killed. Nearly 78% feel that using a seatbelt reduces the risk of airbag-induced injury, a belief which is shown by studies to be incorrect. Those surveyed are largely unaware that a majority of lives saved have been among people who were not wearing seatbelts.

A hint of ambivalence about airbags is indicated by nearly one-third of respondents who, in buying their next vehicle, would be likely to request that the dealer disconnect the airbag system.

Alhough respondents generally favor the use of air bags, a large majority (71%) would favor a law in their state requiring children under the age of 10 to be seated in the rear seat and buckled.

Other findings include that one third or less of those interviewed knew at what speeds airbags release. A smaller percentage of women (35.8%, men 43.9%) strongly favored the use of the air bag currently. The authors speculate that women may be more sensitive to the dangers recently cited for small children.

Comments John Graham, lead author on the study, "A startling result of our survey was that there is no consensus belief about whether a small child ought to be seated in the front seat. Since we know that a lot of safety issues in use of the passenger side air bag can be solved by adults choosing to place children under 12 in the backseat, this may be a troubling aspect affecting child safety in cars with dual airbags."

He continues, "Our findings have implications for the development of alternatives to the passsenger side air bags, e.g., design of a system that would suppress or slow airbag deployment when children are in the "deployment zone," or making air bags optional."

Complete survey results may be downloaded as a PDF file entitled The Airbag's Teflon Image: A National Survey of Knowledge and Attitudes.

To view and print a PDF file, you must have the freely distributed Adobe Reader installed on your computer (visit Adobe Acrobat Reader to download the reader).

For further information, please contact:

Robin Herman
Office of Communications
Harvard School of Public Health
677 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
Phone: 617-432-4752
Email: rherman@hsph.harvard.edu