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Rollover Airbags Soon Required—Because Some Aren't Buckling Up

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Head-protecting side-curtain airbags are proven lifesavers; they've already helped contribute to the drop in traffic fatalities over the past several years, and safety officials have estimated that they alone could save up to 2,000 lives per year.

In what almost seems like safety officials' version of an April Fool's joke (but surely isn't), automakers will soon be required to install rollover airbags that keep occupants in the vehicle when they don't buckle up.

If you don't buckle up, your chances aren't good in a rollover

According to federal accident statistics, rollovers only occur in about three percent of all crashes, yet they account for more than a third of all fatalities. Meanwhile, nearly half of those killed in rollover crashes are thrown from vehicles, and the vast majority of those thrown from vehicles aren't buckled up.

All states but New Hampshire require adult seatbelt use, and all states require them for children. Compliance rates vary greatly on a state-by-state basis, however, and many adults still fail to buckle up when they're backseat passengers.

Since most of those thrown from vehicles are ejected through the side windows, NHTSA is requiring that manufacturers modify their airbag systems so that an unbelted adult's head can't move more than four inches past the side-window opening in a specified impact.

Ejection ruled prompting new airbag designs

NHTSA tested 24 vehicles with rollover airbags and found that only one met the new requirement; that means nearly every side-curtain bag will need to be redesigned and retested—at great cost to automakers and consumers. The federal agency will phase in the requirement beginning in 2013, and all vehicles must meet it by 2018.

A concern discussed by the IIHS is whether the stiffer airbags required by the new rules will be as good in preventing head and neck injuries; actual injuries from side airbags (from those properly belted) have also been rare, but that might change with the introduction of these new designs.

"Research shows that side curtain airbags are very effective at reducing injury risk in side crashes," notes Matthew Brumbelow, a senior research engineer for the Institute, in a piece in the Institute's Status Report newsletter. "We hope the changes required by the new regulation don't diminish this."

Are there lower-cost alternatives?

Instead of the new rule (and new airbag designs), the IIHS recommends the use of laminated, 'shatter-proof' glass for side windows. Ejections will also be reduced by the stronger roof designs that have been introduced to meet the Institute's new roof strength test.

NHTSA estimates that 373 deaths and 476 serious injuries—mostly to those who are unbelted—would be averted each year, at a cost of $507 million, or $31 per vehicle when amortized.

Should we require a redesign of all of our airbags—at higher vehicle cost—because it might provide better protection to unbelted occupants, or are there better ways we could be spending our safety money? Let us know what you think.


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Comments (8)
  1. We just need to quite trying to protect those people not smart enough to wear their seatbelts. Why should the rest of us have to pay extra and possible get a product that may cause damage to us that do wear them just to protect the unbelted.
    And the alternative, shatter-proof side windows, how are people trapped in cars supposed to get out if they or responders can't break out side windows that are shatter proof

  2. I AGREE with Matt D. WHY should we have to pay for the stupidity of others. They don't want to buckle up, then they take their chances if they have an accident. We have enough mandates in this country now. We DON'T need anymore! Enough is enough! Let DETROIT tell Washington- NO!!!~!~!!

  3. well said Matt D.

  4. There have been cases in the past where personal-injury awards were reduced to plaintiffs who were not wearing their seat belts, on the grounds that they contributed to their own injuries. This seems to me an eminently sensible approach, since otherwise all of us belt wearers (the vast, vast majority of people, now) are paying for the stupidity of the minority. On the other hand, I'd like to see data on the actual incremental cost ... which may not be terribly high, since it's not an additional airbag but a redesign of an existing one.

  5. Agreed that roll-overs are rare. However any impact from the side, whether directly or focused on the front or rear axle, will force the near-side passenger's head into the side glass, and possibly through the opening when the glass shatters. That is hard on your ear, neck and brain. Take it from a crash scene investigator (CxSI)

  6. Good points, John. Automakers need to continue to improve their designs. The side impact backs are early in the refinement cycle. Shatter resistant glass is also a good deal now available on many vehicles domestic and imported.

  7. That works out to spending around $597,000 to prevent each inicdent (death or injury) assuming the new design is 100% successful at preventing these. Since no matter how good the design, it is unlikely to reduce the incidents by even 50% (older cars will not have them and will still be on the road for years) that means we could hand every person injurid in a rollover accident each year $1,000,000 and save money.
    Isn't this way past the point of diminishing returns?

  8. Hmmm--- #6. I meant to say side impact BAGS are early in the design evolutions cycle.

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