Almost 10,000 passenger vehicle occupants die each year in side impacts, and head injuries are a leading cause. Side airbags designed specifically to protect the head can reduce such deaths and the even more numerous nonfatal head injuries that occur in side impacts.
Both of the small SUVs with good overall ratings in the Institute's side impact test are equipped with side airbags designed to protect the heads of front-seat occupants. These are standard on the Subaru Forester and optional on the Ford Escape. The Hyundai Santa Fe, which also has standard side airbags with head protection, earned an acceptable rating. In contrast, none of the seven small SUVs with poor ratings is equipped with standard side airbags designed to protect the head. And none of the small SUVs the Institute tested has side airbags to protect the heads of people in rear seats.
Note about side airbags in tested vehicles: Saturn does offer optional inflatable curtains, which cover front and rear seating positions. However, when side airbags are optional the Institute tests vehicles without this option. If a manufacturer selling optional side airbags requests the Institute to conduct an additional test of a vehicle with this option and agrees to reimburse the cost of the vehicle, a second test is conducted. General Motors didn't request such a test for the VUE, but Ford did request the Institute to test an Escape with optional side airbags. The Honda CR-V and Element plus the Mitsubishi Outlander have optional side airbags to protect the thorax, but neither of these manufacturers requested a second test with this option.