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.