Advances in Airbag Technology

Since Ralph Nader's seminal book "Unsafe at Any Speed" came out over 40 years ago, seat belts, padded dashboards, collapsible steering columns, improved bumpers and other safety features have become standard fare on cars and trucks. After seat belts, the most significant advance in automobile safety has been the airbag.

Crash tests by organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have helped refine airbag technology.

Crash tests by organizations such as the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety have helped refine airbag technology.

Airbags are gas-inflated cushions that rapidly discharge from compartments hidden in steering columns, dashboards, roof rails, doors and seats, hyper-inflating to protect a vehicle's safety-belted adult driver and passengers.

Driver and front-passenger airbags have been required in cars by the federal government since the 1998 model year (since 1999 for light trucks). Mercedes-Benz first put airbags in all its models in 1986.

By the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's own estimates, airbags have saved nearly 28,000 lives since 1998, that's more than 2,300 people a year. NHTSA calculates that using a seat belt and having an airbag reduces the risk of death by 61 percent. Simply put, this combination is the most basic and effective safety precaution available.

In recent years, an armada of airbags has been added to cars and trucks. Some rides, such as the BMW M3, now possess as many as eight of the nylon inflatables.

Side-impact airbags, which Volvo debuted in the mid-1990s, are one of these bonus bladders. Variations shield the pelvis, chest and head and can deploy from the door, seat or roof of a vehicle. Side curtain-type airbags protect the head and, in some models, remain inflated for up to five seconds during rollovers. BMW was an early curtain pioneer.

Side airbags not only help passengers in more rollover-prone sport utility vehicles, but they also protect occupants of smaller cars from these same light trucks.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety is a nonprofit trade group that crash tests vehicles and conducts related research. The organization's chief operating officer, Adrian Lund, says of SUVs, "When these things hit you on the side if you're in a car, basically their hood is right at your head."

Side curtain-type airbags in the Volvo XC90 provide occupants with additional protection in case of rollover.

Side curtain-type airbags in the Volvo XC90 provide occupants with additional protection in case of rollover.

Side airbags can provide a cushion between bodies and intruding SUVs. "We've seen about a 45 percent reduction in fatal injuries for vehicles that are equipped with side airbags," Lund says.

NHTSA is working on upgrading side-impact safety standards for all passenger vehicles. On Sept. 1, 2009, the agency phased in new side-impact standards that required side airbags as standard equipment.

Other airbag innovations continue apace. General Motors was the first to introduce dual-depth passenger-side airbag. These bags inflate to different girths, depending on variables such as seat position, the severity of the crash and whether the seat belt is clasped or not.

Dual-stage airbags, present on several new Volvo models, work slightly differently. With this technology, a sensor measures the severity of a crash and seat-belt usage to adapt airbag inflation speeds; a severe crash results in a full, rapid deployment, while a fender-bender triggers a slower, 70-percent inflation.

BMW has also been at the forefront of advanced airbag technology. Its 7 Series was an early adopter of knee airbags, which protect the legs and help the driver avoid sliding down and forward during a crash.

Children and Airbags
NHTSA advises the following for child seating in an airbag-equipped vehicle:
Children 12 years old and younger should ride in a booster seat in a rear seat until he or she is big enough to properly use just a seat belt.
Infants in rear-facing child-safety seats should never ride in the front seat of a vehicle with a passenger-side frontal-impact airbag.
Small children should sit in approved child-safety seats in the rear seat of the vehicle.
If a child over a year old must ride in the front seat with a passenger-side airbag, put the child in a front-facing child-safety seat, a booster seat or a properly fitted seat belt and move the seat as far back as possible.
Manufacturers are working to minimize the risk to children from side-impact airbags. If you have side airbags in the rear seat of your vehicle, check your owner's manual or contact your manufacturer for recommendations on child seating.

Since Sept 1, 2006, NHTSA has required new vehicles come with advanced frontal airbag systems. Advance front passenger airbags can also — based on your weight and position — turn the airbag off. These new models are configured to render moot — the belief that the airbags crushed children and small adults — the public outcry over first-generation airbags. Mechanics were regularly asked, against the wishes of manufacturers, to disable passenger-side bags. This led to the introduction of controversial on/off switches — which are still permitted until 2012. NHTSA statistics show that 291 people have been killed by airbags since 1990.

© Cars.com 07/20/2012