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Status Report, Vol. 42, No. 1 | January 27, 2007 Subscribe

How airbags went from controversial to commonplace

By the late 1990s frontal airbags were standard in new cars in the U.S. market, and automakers quickly began offering optional side airbags. Now head-protecting side airbags are in nearly 70 percent of new cars, and some manufacturers offer knee airbags.

It was a hard slog to get these, and the story isn't over yet. Former Institute president Brian O'Neill recently reflected on the history of airbags and offered insights into what's next. He presented his remarks, highlighted here, at the 8th International Symposium on Sophisticated Car Occupant Protection Systems.

Frontal airbags used to be viewed in the U.S. market as alternatives to lap/shoulder belts, which seldom were used (U.S. states were late among motorized jurisdictions to adopt belt laws). The idea was that if people refused to buckle up, the airbags would be there in frontal crashes. We've come a long way since then. Now airbags and safety belts are designed to work as a system, and the U.S. belt use rate tops 80 percent.

During the 1970-80s, automakers resisted airbags. Only when the U.S. Supreme Court intervened did regulators finally complete a frontal airbag rule specifying 100 percent compliance by the 1990 model year. In a unanimous decision the Court said, "For nearly a decade, the automobile industry waged the regulatory equivalent of war against the airbag and lost."

In conducting their war, the automakers suggested ignition interlocks as alternatives to airbags. The devices forced drivers to buckle up or their cars wouldn't start. This was the first U.S. approach that significantly increased belt use rates, but interlocks were so unpopular that eventually Congress banned them from being required again.

What will future airbags look like? Probably their biggest weakness has been the inability of crash sensors to reliably and quickly detect the wide range of real-world crashes in which airbags are needed. More sophisticated sensors will allow automakers to refine how airbags and safety belts work together. Better sensors may open the door to external airbags that create more crush space, especially for smaller vehicles.

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