In a recent study, The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety estimated that side air bags offering head protection could save the lives of about 2,000 drivers a year if every vehicle were properly equipped. The study was based on federal crash data involving 1997-2004 model year cars involved in crashes from 1999-2004 and 2001-2004 SUVs involved in crashes from 2000-2004.
The agency’s conclusion is based on insurance industry research that shows driver deaths in side-impact collisions dropped by more than 50 percent in SUVs equipped with head-protecting side air bags. The study also found that the risk of death dropped 30 percent in side collisions involving SUVs with side air bags that only offer protection to the chest and abdomen.
In passenger cars struck on the driver’s side, the risk of the driver being killed dropped 37 percent in autos with side air bags that have head protection. The risk of driver death fell 26 percent for cars with side air bags providing just chest and abdomen protection. The researchers discovered that fatality risks were lower across the board in vehicles with side air bags, whether the crash involved older or younger drivers, male or female drivers, and drivers of compact cars or larger passenger vehicles.
The side air bag was introduced in the mid-1990s, and has been credited for allowing motorists to escape serious injuries and death when struck in the side. In a head-on crash, the vehicle’s front-end absorbs most of the impact. However, a motorist struck in the side has very little protection without the side air bags.
Side-impact crashes are a major concern. In 2004, the government estimated that 9,270 people were killed in these types of crashes, which amounted to almost 30 percent of traffic deaths reported that year.
Although federal regulations don’t require side airbags in passenger vehicles, more and more manufacturers are installing them as standard equipment. This is due primarily to a 2003 voluntary agreement among automakers to improve occupant protection in side impacts for SUVs and pickups. The agreement is supposed to result in all cars, SUVs, and pickups having side airbags with head protection by 2010.
The auto industry has been keeping pace, and almost four of every five new car and SUV models already have standard or optional side airbags that include head protection. This is a significant increase since side airbags were introduced in the mid-1990s. If you would like model-by-model information on side airbag availability in 1996-2006 models, log on to iihs.org/ratings/ side_airbags/side_airbags.aspx.