David Zax

A View from David Zax

The Airbag's New Angle

It’s got your side.

  • October 7, 2011

The airbag, which recently turned 30, is estimated to have saved something on the order of 30,000 lives in the U.S. alone. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. The traditional, steering-wheel-embedded airbag does wonders in preventing fatalities in head-on collisions. But there’s no rule of the highway that says accidents have to be head-on.

GM recently announced “the industry’s first front center airbag”—upon collision, it shoots out from the side of one of the front seats. The idea is to protect the driver in case of a “far-side crash,” that is, a collision in which someone else’s vehicle strikes your car on the opposite side from where the driver is sitting. The statistics on far-side crashes are grim: GM says that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Fatality Analysis Reporting System database reveals that such crashes account for 11 percent “of the belted front occupant fatalities in non-rollover impacts between 2004 and 2009 involving 1999 model year or newer vehicles.”

“The front center airbag has real potential to save lives in side crashes,” Adrian Lund, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety’s president, said.

GM developed the new airbag together with Takata over a period of three years. A video from GM shows the difference the new airbag can make in the life of a test dummy in the event of a far-side crash.

Airbag technology has had a way of proliferating lately. According to the IIHS’s site, “[a]irbag technology is continuously developing.” Ford has even developed “an inflatable safety belt,” whose torso portion inflates in the event of a crash, thereby “distributing crash forces across the torso and chest.”

The Toyota iQ microcar, called Scion in the U.S., has a “rear window curtain airbag” that deploys right in front of the rear windshield if someone strikes the microcar from behind. (Autoblog Green has a picture of the device, which looks something like a monstrous neck pillow.) Toyota has also made rear center airbags to prevent rear passengers from smashing into each other in the event of a crash, and the IIHS even reports that engineers have developed airbags for the exteriors of cars—to protect pedestrians.

Read up enough on airbag technology, and you begin to view cars in a different light. That tough aluminum exterior is just a façade—inside, the modern car has gone all soft.

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