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IIHS: Newer Frontal Airbags Compromising Protection?

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Carmakers can’t be sued for not installing airbags like the one on this ’95 Bronco, says the Supreme Court.

Carmakers can’t be sued for not installing airbags like the one on this ’95 Bronco, says the Supreme Court.

We always think of safety features as progressing forward, but that isn't always the case. In a new research paper, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety suggests that the latest generation of frontal airbags isn't doing as good of a job protecting drivers who have belted up as the generation of bags before it.

After adjusting the data for other factors, like vehicle age, the IIHS found, actually, that belted drivers tend to fare better in vehicles that weren't certified to the latest airbag safety standard.

What's changed with the newer generation of bags? For one, they deploy with less force, the IIHS says. In part to solve issues in the 1990s with airbags killing or seriously injuring small children or small adults, or people too close to the wheel, airbags were depowered

Beginning with 2003, airbags followed more advanced 'tailored deployment' patterns—like dual-stage bags—that depended on weight sensors, seat position sensors, or seatbelts to either deploy in a gentler way or not at all if the passenger is smaller or out of position. Meanwhile, crash-test speeds have risen from 30 to 35 mph for frontal tests, beginning with 2007-model-year vehicles.

Overall, the study found that unbelted male drivers had a 38-percent lower death rate in vehicles with advanced airbag features while belted drivers overall had a 21-percent higher risk of death with the newer designs.

Researchers weren't sure if the trend is due to the stronger deployment required for the higher test speeds or if it's the range of considerations for out-of-position occupants.

"Perhaps air bags were suppressed in situations where they could be beneficial or were overly aggressive due to re-introduction of rigid-barrier tests for unbelted occupants," the authors said.

The newest airbags appear to provide suboptimal protection for drivers who buckle up compared with the airbags that preceded them," said IIHS president Adrian Lund. "It's a surprising finding."

The study is only based on 121 cases, mostly covering 2000-2003 models in crashes involving the death of a belted driver or front passenger. The IIHS paper includes a list of the study vehicles, breaking them down into model years when advanced features were phased in, along with when they were certified to the latest standard.

[IIHS]

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Comments (4)
  1. This problem may show some of the disadvantages of modernization. The problem should be solved quickly because airbags are essential in protecting drivers in the event of an impact.
     
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  2. Lask of sensitivity adjustments are a huge problem of air bags deploying when not needed. Airbags can deploy in very minor bumper tapping or even potholes. Insurance will not pay because manufacturer defect. Care maker will not pay because insurance item. Repairs cost thousnde sand car is never right again.
     
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  3. Is it the airbags or is the trend to reduce mass and structural integrity of the vehicles over time to increase gas mileage? Were crashes in which the airbag would not have mattered- i.e., the vehicle pancaked or the passenger compartment was crushed- removed from consideration in the study? Modern vehicles are far less safe from a structural standpoint than vehicles of 20 to 30 years ago, there being far less steel to protect the passengers of the car in the event of an impact. Case in point: striking a deer at 55mph in 1995 in a 1979 Chevy Caprice. Damage was limited to denting the license plate. Today, the same impact would kill everyone in the car and destroy the front end of the car.
     
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  4. Agree with Mr. Hunt that some data may be invalid but statistically the sample size is more than acceptable. HOWEVER...if you believe the statement about the cars of 20-30yrs ago (more steel is better regardless of design) go on youtube.com and watch the 59 Bel Air vs the 2009 Malibu. Its much more likely that the test criteria don't always match "real world" (i.e. NHTSA resistance to conducting the IIHS offset test vs its standard full frontal). Also, the unbelted test conditions are simply archaic. Airbags are depowered for unbelted occupants/out of position thus making it VERY difficult to be fully deployed in higher speed crashes. Add the seatbelt and increase the deployment speed of airbags to the "old" levels. My curiousity lies in the # of people who are injured due to OOP vs depowered airbags based on the recent study. I suspect the injuries due to OOP are significantly less... Anyway...food for thought.
     
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