Engineering

Many injuries can be prevented by building safer vehicles and modifying the physical environment in which injuries occur. The cost to develop and implement passive countermeasures usually exceeds the cost of education campaigns. However, engineering is usually more effective because it does not require millions of users to permanently and consistently change their behavior.

Consider these examples. In contrast to the disappointing results of driver's education, federal standards for motor vehicle construction saved an estimated 37,000 lives between 1975 and 1978 alone. These standards addressed such issues as passenger restraint systems, windshields, fuel tank integrity, and the flammability of interior fabric. Introduction of air bags cut the nation's toll of deaths and injuries due to car crashes still further.

Construction of the interstate highway system saved lives as well. Modifications to the driving environment, such as banked curves, divided lanes of traffic, controlled ramps for ingress and egress, elimination of crossing streams of traffic, and the positioning of energy-absorbing pilings in front of fixed obstructions, cut the interstate highway death rate to less than half that for other roads.

These lessons can be applied to other hazardous products. Cigarettes cause more than half of U.S. fatalities due to house fires. Most occur when the smoker falls asleep in bed or leaves a burning cigarette on the arm of a sofa or chair. Television, radio, and print advertisements warning of the dangers of smoking in bed have had little no impact on this problem. Smoke detectors save lives by warning of an impending catastrophe in time to permit the occupants to evacuate the house, but they require a concerted effort to encourage people to install and maintain them.

Passive engineering of the home environment by installing sprinkler systems could be a very effective strategy. Unfortunately, residential sprinkler systems are expensive and often cannot be retrofitted into older homes. However, the cigarette itself could be modified to diminish its potential to ignite furniture or bedding.

Laws requiring products to be designed to diminish their potential to cause harm can be highly effective. Unfortunately, such laws are difficult to enact. Manufacturers often oppose such regulations because they fear it will raise the price of the products and discourage sales. In addition to the issue of personal freedom, concerns are often raised about cost, government interference, and reduced competitiveness with nonregulated manufacturers. If efforts to regulate a hazardous product fail, product liability lawsuits may force a needed change in product design.

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