Side airbags that protect vehicle occupant’s heads have reduced driver deaths in cars struck on the driver side by an estimated 37 percent. Airbags that protect only the chest and abdomen, but not the head, have cut deaths by 26 percent, according to a new study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety (IIHS).

“We found lower fatality risks across the board — among older and younger drivers, male and female drivers, and drivers of both small cars and larger passenger vehicles,” says Anne McCartt, (IIHS) vice president for research and a study author.

Fatalities Cut in SUV Collisions
Head-protecting side airbags reduce driver fatality risk when cars are struck by SUVs and pickups, not just other cars. This finding is important since risks go up for occupants of cars struck in the side by the higher-riding vehicles. In particular, the car occupants’ heads are vulnerable to being struck. Automakers are cooperating to reduce vehicle incompatibilities in both side and front collisions that lead to car occupant injuries, and a big part of this effort is to equip vehicles with side airbags.

Fatality risk in SUVs decreased 52 percent with head-protecting side airbags and 30 percent with airbags that protect the chest and abdomen but not the head.

Findings track results of IIHS side-crash tests conducted since 2003. All 33 current models with good ratings in this test are equipped with head-protecting side airbags. To compare vehicle ratings based on front, side, and rear tests, visit the IIHS Web site,

All Vehicles Equipped by 2010
Although federal regulations don't require side airbags in passenger vehicles, more and more manufacturers are installing them. A 2003 voluntary agreement among automakers will result equipping all cars, SUVs, and pickups with side airbags with head protection by the 2010-model year.

About four of every five new car and SUV models already have standard or optional side airbags that include head protection. The airbags vary by design. Some descend from the vehicle roof to protect the heads of occupants in both front and back seats. Combination side airbags inflate from the vehicle seat or sometimes the door. These protect occupants' torsos and heads, too.

Pickup trucks aren't matching the pattern of rapidly being equipped with side airbags. Head-protecting ones are standard in only one 2006-model pickup. Fewer than half of all pickups have side airbags at all, standard or optional.

“Once every passenger vehicle on the road has side airbags that include head protection for front-seat occupants, we can save as many as 2,000 lives per year,” McCartt concludes.

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About the author
Cindy Brauer

Cindy Brauer

Former Managing Editor

Cindy Brauer is a former managing editor for Bobit Business Media’s AutoGroup. A native of Chicago but resident of Southern California since her teens, Brauer studied journalism and earned a communications degree at California State University Fullerton. Over her career, she has written and edited content for a variety of publishing venues in a disparate range of fields.

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