The airbag is a vehicle safety device and occupant restraint system that is designed to inflate in a fraction of a second during an automobile collision. The airbag cushions the occupants during the crash, thus providing additional protection for their bodies when they strike interior or exterior objects such as the steering wheel, the dashboard, or the windshield. The safest modern vehicles on the market contain both frontal airbags and side-impact airbags.

Since 1998, frontal airbags have been standardized in all passenger sized vehicles, and since 1999 frontal airbags have been standardized in all vans, pickups and SUV’s. Although side-impact airbags are an optional or standard feature on a number of newer vehicles, currently the National Highway Traffic Safety Association (NHTSA) has not yet required that side-impact airbags (SABs) be installed on all motor vehicles.

Side-Impact Airbags

Frontal airbags have been predominantly available in Europe since the early 1990s; however, by the 2000’s, side-impact airbags (SABs) were more commonplace and frequently offered on even low to midrange type vehicles. In 2003, the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS) began correlating crash data for side-impact collisions. According to the IIHS, side-impact crashes were responsible for 27 percent of passenger vehicle occupant deaths in the United States in 2009.

The IIHS states that side-impact collisions are particularly deadly due to the fact that the sides of vehicles have very little space to shield occupants and to absorb energy, unlike a front-impact collision where the vehicle’s engine can absorb the energy of the collision. As of 2011, 78 percent of the current vehicle designs that were tested had good ratings, as compared to approximately one third of the vehicles that were tested in the first two years of the program. According to the IIHS, earlier research showed the vast importance of side airbags, and no vehicle without head-protecting side airbags had ever earned a good rating from the Institute.

While much is known about front airbags, people are less aware of the importance of side-impact airbags. Side-impact airbags (SABs) are inflatable devices that are designed to protect the head and chest of an occupant in a serious side-impact collision. There are three types of SABs available on the market:

  • Chest or torso SABs are located in the side of the seat or in the door and help protect the chest in a side-impact collision.
  • Head SABs are mounted in the roof rail above the side windows and are designed to protect the head in a side-impact collision. These SABs are either referred to as a curtain or tubular, curtain SABs are designed to protect the front and rear occupants in the event of a side-impact crash. Some curtain SABs can also protect the occupants from being ejected in side-impact collision where the vehicle is struck and rolls over.
  • The head/chest combination or “combo” SAB is typically mounted in the side of the seat and it is designed to protect the head and chest in the event of a side-impact collision.

Benefits of Having a Side-Impact Airbag

SABs are designed to inflate in a fraction of a second and they provide much needed protection for the head and chest from being struck by hard objects both inside and outside of the vehicle. Unlike the traditional frontal airbag, some of the curtain airbags stay inflated for several seconds during an accident to provide additional protection in case of a vehicle rollover.

The auto industry has become increasingly aware of the fact that side-impact airbags can provide a high level of safety benefits for those involved in side-impact collisions. According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, they estimate that if all vehicles in the United States were equipped with head protection SABs, then up to 1,000 lives would be saved each year in side-impact collisions. Currently, unlike front airbags, SABs are not mandated by the NHTSA; however, the NHTSA recently proposed an upgrade to the federal standard for side-impact protection in vehicles.

Side-impact collisions take approximately 10,000 lives each year, and because side-impact collisions command such a large slice of the total number of vehicle fatalities, auto manufacturers are well aware of this much needed safety feature. While the driver and the passenger in the front of the vehicle have protection from a front airbag, those riding in the rear of the vehicle, which are often infants and children are not given the same level of protection, if any at all. This means that the infants or children of the mothers, fathers, and grandparents riding in the front often sustain serious traumatic brain injuries, or die in side-impact crashes while their parents or grandparents riding in the front walk away unscathed.

Contact an Attorney for Help

The fact that auto manufacturers are completely aware of the life-saving features of SABs since the early 2000’s, yet in an effort to cut costs they fail to install these life-saving devices, we find it absolutely unacceptable, especially when they can save thousands of children’s lives. Even though approximately 27 percent of passenger vehicle fatalities are the result of side-impact collisions, the life-saving technology of side-impact airbags has only been slowly incorporated into motor vehicles; this makes one wonder why auto manufacturers have failed to ignore this life-saving technology when they are well aware of its availability.

If you or someone you love has been impacted by a defective airbag or due to a side-impact collision without an SAB, then we strongly urge you to contact a car accident attorney at our firm to discuss the details of your case.