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The Future of Car Airbags

Even as New Tech Arrives, They're a Vital Part of Car Safety

Cars today are safer than ever. Fatality rates from car accidents are dropping every year and it's not uncommon for many of the most popular vehicles to earn top safety ratings from the federal government's crash test program or the one sponsored by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

Airbags are a big part of this trend. In frontal crashes, frontal airbags reduce driver fatalities by 29 percent and fatalities of front-seat passengers age 13 and older by 32 percent, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Look at any new car today and you'll find a suite of airbags: frontal airbags, side torso airbags and side curtain airbags. Some vehicles even have rear-seat airbags.

Future car airbag technology could make driving even safer. Here are some airbag innovations that are starting to make their way into new vehicles. We'll have to see if they find widespread acceptance.

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Knee Airbags: This small airbag is designed to minimize injuries to the lower limbs as they make contact with the dashboard. Knee airbags are located in the footwell, under the steering column on the driver side and under the glovebox on the passenger side. The federal government's New Car Assessment Program (NCAP) testing is driving more automakers to include knee airbags, says David Zuby, chief research officer for the IIHS.

Ford introduced a new passenger knee airbag design on the 2015 Ford Mustang. Rather than use the traditional fabric design, this new airbag consists of an inflatable, molded plastic bladder, wedged between the inner and outer glovebox door panels. In the event of an accident, an inflator fills the bladder, extending the entire glovebox outer door panel toward the front passenger's legs, Ford says. Once deployed, the outer door helps to provide cushioning in a manner similar to a traditional knee airbag. The new design is 65 percent lighter than the previous system and results in slightly more legroom for the passenger.

Front Center Airbag: General Motors introduced its front center airbag on the 2013 Buick Enclave, Chevrolet Traverse and GMC Acadia midsize crossovers. This airbag deploys from the right side of the driver seat and positions itself between the front row seats near the center of the vehicle. GM says that the new airbag is designed to provide restraint during passenger-side crashes when the driver is alone, and also acts as an energy-absorbing cushion between driver and front passenger in both driver- and passenger-side crashes. The airbag can also help minimize injury in rollover accidents.

Inflatable Seatbelts: Ford introduced inflatable rear seatbelts on the 2011 Ford Explorer. Think of these as a cross between an airbag and a seatbelt. Ford says that it designed the inflatable seatbelts to help reduce head, neck and chest injuries for rear-seat passengers, who are often children and the elderly and who can be more vulnerable to such injuries. The seatbelts have made their way into other Ford vehicles such as the Flex and the Lincoln lineup.

However, many makers of child safety seats do not recommend combining a safety seat with the inflatable seatbelts. The recommendation is a precaution, since the manufacturers haven't had the chance to test seatbelts extensively with their products. If you're considering a vehicle with inflatable seatbelts, check with your child safety seat manufacturer to make sure the seat you're using is compatible with the seatbelts.

Current State of Car Airbags
Frontal airbags have been a federal requirement since the 1999 model year. Side airbags are not federally mandated, but since government regulations require a certain level of head and torso protection for all occupants in side-impact crashes, side airbags that protect the head and torso are standard on 90.3 percent of 2013 vehicles, according to the IIHS. Automakers need them to comply with side-impact standards, Zuby says.

He's referring to a final rule that NHTSA adopted in 2011, aimed at "reducing partial and complete vehicle ejections." This means that side curtain airbags will have to deploy in rollover crashes, says Zuby.

Some vehicles have this capability now, but those that don't will have to meet the requirement soon. To comply with the rule, large-volume automakers installed ejection-mitigation provisions in 25 percent of their vehicles by September 2013, with 100 percent compliance required by September 2017.

Reducing Airbag Injuries
Airbags must deploy in milliseconds, and when they do, it isn't like getting hit with a big, soft pillow. Some people have compared it to getting hit in the face with a boxing glove.

It takes a burst of explosive energy to deploy an airbag, and airbags have injured and, in some cases, killed passengers that were sitting too close to them. This was more of an issue with frontal airbags from the early 1990s, which only deployed at one predetermined level of force. This caused problems in low-speed accidents or when a passenger was seated too close to the airbag.

In 1997, NHTSA gave manufacturers the option to reduce the inflation power of first-generation airbags to lessen the likelihood of injury. These less powerful airbags were known as "depowered" airbags and have been in most vehicles since 1997. But then something better came along.

Advanced frontal airbags, also called dual-stage airbags, were the next-generation system. They can detect whether they need to deploy at full force, reduced force or not at all, depending on the situation. NHTSA says that advanced airbags were designed to minimize the risk of injury to children and shorter adults.

NHTSA mandated that automakers begin phasing them in for the 2003 model year, and by September 1, 2006, every new car and truck produced had advanced frontal airbags.

Another possible solution to the problem of airbag injuries is GM's variation on the advanced airbag. The flexible-venting airbag has a special vent that uses the driver's forward momentum to push out the gas from the inflated bag, making for a less harsh impact. That airbag debuted on the 2013 Chevrolet Cruze on the driver side only.

For the most part, the injury issues stem from frontal airbags. Side airbags and side curtain airbags are associated with very few injuries since they only inflate a few inches toward the passenger. Even rear side airbags are safe for kids, as long as the kids don't sit out of position (i.e., lean out the window) and are properly buckled in their child safety seats.

The Future of Airbags
In the immediate future, there will be more developments in "active safety," such as pre-collision systems and lane departure warnings, to prevent accidents, rather than "passive safety," such as airbags and car crumple zones, that minimize injuries during an accident.

The sensor, processing and "by-wire" technologies have advanced very quickly over the last few years, says John Hanson, national manager of advanced technology business communications for Toyota. This lets manufacturers develop a wide variety of high-level driver assistance features to improve crash avoidance or crash mitigation, Hanson says.

Looking further out, Zuby says that automakers will begin to fit forward-looking sensors that work in concert with airbags. "We might see airbags that deploy just before the crash, with even less energy than they do now," he says. This will help reduce injuries from airbag deployment even further.

Choosing the Safest Car
Safety technology, including airbag systems, is constantly changing and it can be hard to keep up with it all. What is the best way to determine if a car is safe? It's not necessarily by counting how many airbags a car has.

Choose a car that scores well in the federal government's five-star test program and is an IIHS "Top Safety Pick," says Zuby. "People don't get to choose what type of crash they will be in, and you want a car that can be safe in a number of situations."

"Besides the airbags, there is also the vehicle's structure to consider," Zuby says.

Crash testing can reveal structural weaknesses, and a car that doesn't hold up well in a crash can't compensate for resulting injuries to passengers by being stuffed with airbags. In the IIHS side overlap crash test, for example, one car's doors sheared off on impact.

"Just because a car has a lot of airbags doesn't mean it will score well," Zuby says.

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